There aren’t many dramas on television that are as breezy and fun as Sneaky Pete, much less those that, despite a seemingly lighthearted nature, still manage to develop weighty narrative threads to make the season’s story compelling for 10 episodes. Part con man drama and part dysfunctional family ensemble, the series has been an under-appreciated feather in Amazon’s streaming cap since 2015, with Giovanni Ribisi heading up a stellar cast that includes Marin Ireland, Margo Martindale, Libe Barer, Shane McRae, Peter Gerety, and the occasional appearance by The Americans’ Alison Wright. But while Sneaky Pete boasts terrific performances it also brings the kind of sorely missed Elmore Leonard-inspired, wryly funny, fast-talking sensibility that Justified provided for six seasons on FX, thanks in large part to Graham Yost.
As the series begins season 3, moving its production to California after filming in New York State for two seasons, a few things become readily apparent. For one, green-screened backgrounds of the Big Apple’s skyline or busy streets are distracting. And two, the series has compressed two plus seasons of television into a relatively small amount of narrative time. The result is that, at the start of the show’s third season, Marius’ long con isn’t so long (and is therefore more readily believable), while at the same time, the world around him — at least when Marius is running around NYC during the early episodes — occasionally strains credulity.
To be honest, the green screening isn’t that much of an issue; it’s more of a fleeting disturbance that’s both unintentionally meta (this is, after all, a show about a confidence man selling fiction after fiction), and probably more obvious than the producers would like it to be. But it does little to derail the story in season 3, which picks up immediately after the season 2 finale. That puts Marius’s time as Pete on a clock, as Julia (Ireland) confronts the grifter about his assumed identity and his efforts to continue duping the rest of her family. Marius’s identity is kept secret thanks to Julia’s arrest for various acts she committed in the previous season, and which threaten her grandparents’ bail bonds business.
Sneaky Pete is one of the rare dramas that can actually summon up dramatic stakes from a character holding onto a secret. Part of its success has to do with the aforementioned timeframe of the actual narrative. As the characters mention time and time again, the first two seasons amount to roughly two week’s time in the story, so while the show itself manages to build tension surrounding Pete’s true identity, the secret Marius is using to his advantage is really marinating for the audience's benefit. The characters, on the other hand, only appear to be slower on the uptake.
That’s all set to be blown wide open in the season premiere, giving Marius and the rest of the Bowman/Bernhardt clan some necessary time apart. That time is well spent in the first two episodes, split between Pete returning to New York to engage in some high-level grifting with a former partner/love interest Lizzie (Efrat Dor), as Carly (Libe Barer) presses her grandmother and siblings on details about her deceased parents. It turns out, deceit was fairly rampant in the family long before a stranger pretending to be cousin Pete showed up at their door.
Sneaky Pete is such an effortlessly entertaining series that it could easily have conjured up another multi-layered scheme for Marius and his criminal cohort to pull off in season 3. And while there’s little doubt that such a scenario will unfold after the two episodes that were provided to critics ahead of time, the distance the series puts between its characters gives them all a chance to catch their breath, to explore some of Marius’s background, and to let the Bowmans and Bernhardts work through some of the painful truths that have remained hidden as a means of protecting the family. The cast is particularly well suited for that level of character work, and watching Martindale and Ireland spar over the family dinner table is all the proof anyone might need on the matter.
Elsewhere, Ribisi and Dor have an easy chemistry as they charmingly pull off various hustles together. The fluid nature of their work is delicate shorthand for the past they’ve shared. More details are sure to come out, but Sneaky Pete can take its time. Early scenes between Marius and Lizzie point to trouble on the horizon, but not entirely because she’s bad news. Instead, it’s clear that Marius is feeling the pull of the home he nearly had in Connecticut with Julia, Audrey, Carly, and everyone else. Ribisi sells Marius’s necessary reluctance and his desire effectively, a performance that traces a familiar character arc without overselling the career criminal’s apparent change of heart.
In its third season, Sneaky Pete continues to be a reliably entertaining series. More importantly, it’s eager to demonstrate the ways it can shake up its central conceit without destroying everything that makes it work in the first place.
Sneaky Pete season 3 premieres Friday, May 10 on Amazon Prime Video.