Amazon TV pilot reviews: Casanova, Sneaky Pete
James R | On 08, Aug 2015
We take a look at Amazon’s two new pilots, which arrived on the streaming service this weekend. Both are available to watch for free to Prime Instant Video customers and non-customers alike, with Amazon encouraging users to vote and offer feedback to determine which should be given the green light for a full season.
If you had to pick a historical figure to base a TV series on, Giacomo Casanova would probably be near the top of your list. The infamous Lothario has coloured the pages of the past with his reputation, offering the potential for politics, period drama and – of course – some very heavy petting. Amazon’s pilot grabs hold of the petticoat tails of all of these ideas by choosing a lesser known passage in his life: his fleeing from Venice to Paris.
After years of stealing scenes and likeable supporting roles, Diego Luna is a perfect choice to play the lover: he can charm the pants off anyone. And he promptly proceeds to do so. His Giacomo is rough around the edges (thanks to his recent incarceration) but scrubs up well, managing to flirt with anything that moves. At first, he plans to reform his image and lead a more honourable life, but that notion swiftly fades as he finds himself caught between new faces, old friends and some frothy court intrigue.
The problem is that in its eagerness to undress all of these possible avenues, the script for this opener never quite stops for long enough to really sweet talk the audience; the going is good, but you never feel like you’ve been seduced. In the case of a renowned playboy, that’s perhaps a fitting quality. In the case of a subplot involving an alchemist played by Miranda Richardson, though, it might stop you coming back for more than a one-night stand.
The pilot also marks the TV debut of Jean Pierre Jeunet. The director oversees the old-timey French production with colour and vibrant costumes – this is more Amelie than Alien Resurrection – and the locations (including an early glimpse of Venice) add a European flavour to its line-up of otherwise US and UK-based original shows. As we are treated to an entertainingly raunchy flashback of Casanova’s past conquests, though, you can’t help but think of the David Tennant-starring BBC drama about Giacomo several years ago. That was sexier and, crucially, snappier. The trick to being Casanova, Luna explains halfway through, is to make a woman feel like he’s fallen in love with them. Amazon’s show woos well enough, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that your heart already belongs to another.
Amazon’s best original shows are the ones that feel like they wouldn’t have come from anywhere else. The retailer’s studio arm has established a reputation for leaving its creators alone to do their thing without interference – an approach that has led to pilots and series as impressive as Transparent, The Man in the High Castle and Red Oaks.
Sneaky Pete, the second of Amazon’s latest pilots, feels less idiosyncratic than some of the streaming service’s other offerings, an impression that isn’t helped by, and probably partly stems from, the knowledge that it was originally a CBS pilot. The home of CSI, The Good Wife and Under the Dome, Sneaky Pete has the feeling of a mainstream network programme – alongside Casanova, it’s certainly the tamer and more familiar of the two.
The show follows Marius, an ex-con who, after hearing tales of a dream family life from his cellmate, Pete, promptly turns up on the gang’s doorstep and assumes his identity. Not having seen him in 20 odd years, they happily welcome him back into the fold.
Giovanni Ribisi impresses with a rare lead role. You’ll recognises him almost immediately as Phoebe’s half-brother in Friends, as well as other similarly twitchy characters in Ted, Avatar, Public Enemies. That vaguely uneasy quality is a neat fit for a con man perpetually on the verge of being rumbled – and his familiar face lends him the kind of chameleonic quality a grifter needs to get by. That comes in even handier when ‘Pete’ discovers what the family does for a living: they run a semi-failing bail bond business. And they could do with an extra hand.
What follows is the first of possibly many escapades, as Ribisi and Pete’s cousin (Marin Ireland) try to track down a criminal. He’s good at lying through his teeth. She’s single. Together, they create a double-narrative that allows for a story-of-the-week structure within the overall con man plot – something that writer David Shore, who created House, is experienced enough to know could roll on for several seasons.
Will the family’s business ever turn around? Will Pete get out of jail and return home to expose his cellmate? And will ‘Pete’ and his cousin start a romantic relationship? You can see the strands lined up to develop. Likewise, the more sentimental moments, which hint at Marius’ longing for a family he never had, feel a little too smooth and polished. A cameo from Bryan Cranston (who is one of the exec producers), though, suggests that there could be a spikier, darker edge to this drama. Likeable, although far from an instant classic, if Sneaky Pete is ever going to expand on its more promising qualities, you suspect that Amazon – with its free-range production methods – would be the place to do it.