The con that kicks off the new Amazon drama Sneaky Pete is a minefield of cruelty. On the run from a crime boss, newly paroled scam artist Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) arrives at the Connecticut farmhouse where his cellmate grew up and announces to the elderly couple living there that he’s Pete, the grandson they haven’t seen in 20 years. Fake Pete has heard enough about Real Pete’s enchanted childhood to make the flimflam convincing, at least until he can steal from Grandma Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Grandpa Otto (Peter Gerety) the ransom he owes to Manhattan gambling kingpin Vince (series co-creator Bryan Cranston). But nostalgia’s an even smoother liar than Marius is: the bail-bonding Bernhardts are broke, and their other grandson, Taylor (Shane McRae), is a sharp-eyed, emotionally volatile cop.
That’s a ripe, if not particularly original, premise for a TV show. And, in fact, the pilot clings stubbornly to its CBS cradle, pairing the street-dumb Julia (Marin Ireland), another cousin, with the crime-savvy Fake Pete in a fugitive-chasing meh-venture. But then Sneaky Pete pulls off its own hustle, quickly transforming into one of the most fun new dramas in recent memory, deepening its narrative intricacy and emotional complexity as the 10-episode series progresses. It’s a tempting reason to stay in this winter: With each hour roughly taking place over a day, the zippy pacing and multiplying grifts make it a perfect candidate for binge-watching.
The credit for Sneaky Pete’s rapid rise from square procedural to wily thrills probably goes to showrunner Graham Yost, creator of FX’s much-missed Justified. The Amazon series doesn’t quite measure up to the hillbilly crime drama, but there’s enough of Justified in Sneaky Pete for the latter to feel like very good methadone for the former. The most conspicuous connective tissue between the two is Yost’s tendency to proliferate secrets, schemes, double-crosses, and heavily armed baddies until your head swirls in confused anticipation. In addition to Vince, who holds Marius’s brother (Michael Drayer) hostage, Fake Pete contends with the mafioso’s possibly rogue henchman (Michael O’Keefe), the fraying of Audrey and Otto’s marriage, a third cousin’s (Libe Barer) hunch about his identity, his two resentful ex-girlfriends (Virginia Kull and Karolina Wydra), and his parole officer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). That’s a lot of plot, but it adds up to a sense of realism — life is complicated! — rather than overcrowdedness. The Bernhardts’ laden family tree also borrows from Yost’s earlier show the observation that an individual’s flirtation with crime tends to eventually bring down entire clans. And it’s always welcome to see Justified alums Martindale and Jacob Pitts (aka Sarcastic Tim), here playing a slick lawyer weaseling back into Julia’s good graces after leaving her with a kid.
But the raisons d’etre of Sneaky Pete are its cons on cons on cons. The show knows that the best part of watching a scam on screen is getting to feel like an unseen accomplice — and also that the only thing better than that vicarious rush is realizing that we, too, have been expertly deceived. That the series doubles as Character Actor Heaven adds an unexpected sense of generosity to a story about greed. Cranston, the show’s most famous actor, is excellently restrained, allowing his co-stars to take the spotlight as they embody characters who live on lies, whether out of habit or professional necessity or both.
Not all the loose plotlines get pulled into the enormously satisfying concluding knot, but enough of it gets picked up that it’s difficult to begrudge the show those errant threads. (Besides, Yost and his writers set up more than enough for a second season.) Neatness isn’t the point of Sneaky Pete, anyway. Instead, it’s to get lost in the labyrinth of scams, as one character’s move throws off another’s game plan, often with dark humor and sometimes more than a streak of tragic desperation. Inevitably, Fake Pete begins to embrace the broken Bernhardts as something like a family — people you’ll sacrifice anything for, but also people you’ve just gotta lie to sometimes.