Newly paroled conman Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) learns from his younger brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) that they are still in debt to vengeful cop-turner-gambler Vince Lonigan (Bryan Cranston, who also produced), who will begin cutting off Eddie’s fingers if Marius doesn’t pay what he owes in a matter of days. Desperate, Marius decides to pose as jailhouse acquaintance Pete Murphy (Ethan Embry), the estranged grandson of bail bondsmen Otto (Peter Gerety) and Audrey (Margo Martindale) Bernhardt in hopes of getting his hands on their cash. The longer that Marius stays in the role, the closer he grows to Pete’s grandparents and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Carly (Libe Barer), and Taylor (Shane McRae). As the family’s own desperate situations become more evident, Marius deploys his criminal knowledge to their mutual advantage while keeping up his impersonation and scrambling to get the money.
Confidence tricks can be fertile ground for film – just as David Mamet – but building a television (or, in this case, Amazon) series around them comes with a sizeable challenge: how do you keep viewers invested without giving away too much of the scheme or relying on too much convoluted happenstance? Fortunately, showrunner Graham Yost proved to be up to the task, delivering an engaging, smartly written series that always seems to have one more move to make.
Yost previously found success heading up Justified, and Sneaky Pete’s cast includes several of that show’s veterans. Martindale is again a strong matriarchal presence (though neither quite as ruthless or quite as diabolical as Mags Bennett), and she’s joined by Jacob Pitts as Julia’s ex, a sleazy lawyer improbably named Lance Lord, and Brad William Henke, the protective husband to Marius’s torch-carrying ex. In the lead role, Ribisi exudes both an unctuousness and a knack for quick-witted problem-solving that suit the character well, but in a departure from the recent wave of morally dark anti-heroes, he is, despite his profession, revealed to be caring and considerate. As the villainous Vince, Cranston indulges in some shameless monologuing, but he too seems to own this character: pragmatic, a bit world-weary, and perfectly willing to go to violent ends if his reputation is on the line.
In addition to multilayered performances, Sneaky Pete benefits from being able to juggle multiple storylines and tones. Interactions between Marius and the real Pete (who doesn’t know he’s being mined for anecdotes to aid the con) are played as farce whereas the threats against Eddie’s well-being and the lengths Otto will go to to keep his family afloat are given the dramatic heft they deserve. Though there are plenty of opportunities for the show to take the easy way out by relying too much on coincidence to get these characters out of their jams, it often prefers to let us watch the problems fester and unfold, and therein lies the juice.
The end of Sneaky Pete’s first season reveals the workings of a long con, but in keeping with its theme of misdirection, shortly after leaving both Marius and the Bernhardts in a better place, it throws them again into danger. Whether or not the show’s premise can sustain itself for another season is anyone’s guess. The first season, however, is as convincing as the grifters at its core.