Already seen Sneaky Pete? Read our spoiler-filled review here.
The pilot episode of Sneaky Pete, released in August 2015, was a modestly pleasing crime drama, but, had it not been for the cliffhanger reveal that the series’ villain was Bryan Cranston, buzz for the Amazon original series might not have been so high. Has the wait for the rest of the series been worth it? On the basis of these three new episodes, the answer is yes… just about.
The pilot episode sets up the basic scenario: con-artist Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) shares a cell with petty crim Pete, who waxes lyrical about his grandparents and cousins, and the idyllic childhood he spent at their house in small-town New York State, before his mom took them away. Released from jail, Marius takes on Pete’s identity, posing as the prodigal grandson/cousin. It’s essential the con works, as Marius is wanted dead by gangster Vince (Cranston), who has his brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer), and former partner in con, Carly (Libe Barer), working for him as a card sharp to pay off their debt.
Episode 2 builds on this set-up, as Marius starts working for his adopted family’s bail bond business as, via flashback, we’re shown exactly why Vince has marked Marius for death. It’s intriguing enough – a long con involving a fake card cheat – but there’s a definite feeling we’ve seen it all before and done better; indeed, the writers even let us know from whence their inspiration sprang. “It’s basically The Sting,” says Vince.
The gangster side to the story never quite transcends cliché, with every sardonic henchman or overlong speech (prior to some ultra-violence) coming across like sub-par Tarantino or, it has to be said, like someone trying and failing to recapture the majesty of Breaking Bad. That’s not to say Cranston is bad, just that his Vince is no Heisenberg – but, then, very few characters are.
What will keep viewers watching is Ribisi, whom most people will know as Phoebe’s weird brother in Friends. He’s a stunningly good actor, all nervous energy and tics in the Casey Affleck mould (there’s a throwaway line to either Casey or his big-chinned brother attending one of Vince’s poker games). The scenes involving the family are great, too, particular formidable matriarch Audrey (the brilliant Margo Martindale), who doesn’t quite trust that “Pete” is who he says he is. There’s fantastic work, too, from Marin Ireland as Audrey’s daughter, Julia – a single mom with a sad past, she’s emotionally fragile, but, on the surface, tough and independent.
Outside the family, Marius’s ex-Marine parole officer, James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), is extremely watchable. We get a hint of how he might become Marius’s ally against Vince’s gang, when he refuses to be intimidated by bent cop Winslow (Michael O’Keefe,also good). Definitely one of the series’ watch-this-space storylines.
One can’t help but wish the creators (that’s Cranston with the creator of House M.D, David Shore) had chosen to focus on the family more and the gangsters less. Not only is the gangster element hackneyed, but they start to close in on Marius rather too quickly – it’s hard to see him keeping his secret for long.
But judgement should be with withheld until the rest of the season has been viewed. One of the series’ other strengths is in its twisty-turny plotting, as Marius – contending with parole officer meetings and lost driving licences – keeps one step ahead of this treadmill of his own making. It’s this that gives you faith the writers will find a satisfying way of keeping the bad guys at arms’ length and that Audrey and her family have plenty of revelations to further complicate Marius’s life.
More to like than dislike, then, and – as Episodes 3 and 4 are far superior to Episode 2 – it looks like things are moving in the right direction. Sneaky Pete might yet wangle himself a second season yet.
All episodes of Sneaky Pete are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Correction: We erroneously said that Ribisi played Phoebe’s boyfriend in Friends. He actually played her brother.