There is a certain degree of difficulty in crafting a good con man drama. It’s a lot like pulling off a good confidence scam in a way, as there has to be enough going on to hook the audience, keep them interested, but also divert their focus away from the unexpected part that’s just around the corner. And when all of that is in addition to the ongoing grift that’s also the show’s conceit, well, things can get a little tricky. But, like any good con artist worth their salt, Sneaky Pete always manages to deliver the goods, and in season 2 it demonstrates why it’s also Amazon’s most entertaining series.
Season 1 was something that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. After being passed on as a series for CBS, Sneaky Pete was snatched up by Amazon and re-worked to fit more in line with the streaming service’s other offerings. It didn’t hurt that the production brought on Justified creator Graham Yost as the new showrunner. Having just spent several years exploring the surprisingly robust Kentucky underworld, hanging out with some of the most charming criminals this side of Ocean’s 11, and bringing the world of Elmore Leonard’s novels to life in a manner that at times exceeded even the best film adaptations of his work, Yost was certainly the right person for the job.
The result, then, was a delight for anyone made giddy at the thought of watching a good con unfold. It also didn’t hurt that the show featured an unflappable performance from Giovanni Ribisi, who headed up a great cast featuring the likes of Marin Ireland, Libe Barer, Shane McRea, Peter Gerety, and of course, Margo Martindale. The season ended with a successful con of former dirty cop turned underworld boss Vince Lonigan (Bryan Cranston), but ultimately came to an end by introducing the plot for season 2. It was a surprising move, one that, had this been a comic book series, would likely have unfolded during a post-credits sequence few bothered to watch the first go-round. As it turns out, the move ensured the con would go on, and as season 2 quickly establishes, things would get a lot darker as the stakes were raised for everyone involved.
Sneaky Pete season 2 is essentially about the idea of consequence. Though Marius’ con of Pete’s family saved his brother from being dismembered by Vince, it set in motion a series of events that made everyone — with the possible exception of Carly (Barer) — a criminal in one way or another. Dealing with the ramifications of those events makes for a great way to give each character their own distinct thread in season 2, while the threat of violence against himself as well as Pete’s family, not to mention the prospect of an $11M payday, becomes the perfect motivation for Marius to continue the long con despite the crazy risk involved.
Sneaky Pete understands the importance of having a good hook, and this time around it’s arguably better than in season 1, as the plot takes full advantage of the show’s cache of characters and the emotional investment the audience is bound to have in them. You’re not just watching Audrey, Otto, Julia, Taylor, and Carly get hoodwinked by Marius. Instead, you’re watching as they dig themselves and each other out of the various holes they’re in as a direct and indirect result of Marius’ schemes. Add to the mix two thugs played by Desmond Harrington and Joseph Lyle Taylor, working for a Ukranian gangster named Luka Delchev, played by terrific character actor John Ales, and you have a purer plot, one that isn’t as beholden to any one individual or seemingly preoccupied with the presence of Bryan Cranston.
There was nothing wrong with Cranston’s Vince in season 1. He made a great villain and was fun to watch, but no matter what transpired, who Vince threatened or maimed, what resonated the fact that Bryan Cranston was on the screen, playing the heavy in a series he’s also the co-creator of. Vince had the tendency to suck the air out of every scene he was in, and in his absence, season 2 finds it a little easier to breathe.
There’s also more room to accommodate a multitude of story threads; a legitimately interesting one for every character. That affords each episode the opportunity to turn on a dime, switching from Marius’ attempts to free Pete from prison in an effort find his long-lost mother and the $11M they stole from Luka to Julia’s money laundering scheme, or Taylor and Audrey covering up the accidental murder of a corrupt NYPD detective that’s now being investigated by Joyce Roby (Jennifer Ferrin), a single-minded detective who’s fast closing in on the truth.
The effect is an immensely entertaining and engaging season of television that has the necessary breathing room to not only keep a tricky long con going, but expand it in completely unexpected ways, as is seen when a new character is added to the series about halfway through. Her involvement seems a likely and appropriate catalyst to bring the Pete/Marius ruse to its natural conclusion, only to do the exact opposite. The result makes the show more fun and surprisingly unpredictable than it already was.
Like a good sleight-of-hand trick, Sneaky Pete gets you thinking you know the score, only to blindside you with what you least expected. The degree of difficulty in pulling off such a feat, not once but twice, is commendable. Like a gifted grifter, Sneaky Pete doesn’t steal your attention and admiration, it convinces you to hand them over of your own accord.
Sneaky Pete season 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.