“The devil’s in the details” is a phrase one would expect to to hear in a con story. Twisty, fun thrillers like these thrive on little moments that may have been overlooked — swiping a wallet after an “accidental” collision, sliding an extra card into the deck to throw the count — but they typically do so by flashing back and highlighting an action that wasn’t seen at first glance. It makes the audience admire how clever and smooth the con artist is, with the surprise benefit of giving the viewers at home a wake-up call.
Such scenes populate “Sneaky Pete,” Amazon’s new original series starring Giovanni Ribisi as the titular con artist, but they aren’t the details that elevate the charming drama above similar fodder. Creators Bryan Cranston (who co-stars as Ribisi’s primary intellectual opponent) and David Shore not only populate the series with expert character actors (including Queen Character Actress Margo Martindale), but give each of them an identity contradictory to expectations.
Marius (Ribisi) begins in the clink, with a talkative cellmate named Pete (Ethan Embry), who just so happens to provide the perfect mark for a con artist on the run. He tells Marius about growing up in his grandparents’ home in Connecticut and how — even though they formed a close bond — he hasn’t seen them in a long, long time. Needing a place to hide out while he comes up with the money he owes a crime boss (Cranston), Marius makes his way to Pete’s home and pretends to be Pete — a distanced relative returned home.
There, he’s met with a delightful cast of characters, including Julia (Marin Ireland), Pete’s cousin and unmarried mother of two, Taylor (Shane McRae), a rambunctious cousin with a wild side, Carly (Libe Barer), the third and final cousin who’s the rebel of the family, and two grandparents, Otto (Peter Gerety) and Audrey (Martindale). Yet there’s a few key surprises awaiting the new Pete:
First, we discover the family runs a bail bonds business, with Julia running point and Audrey pushing her to be better, meaning they’re more likely than not to run across Marius’ face if he violates parole (or causes any other issues). Second, Taylor is a cop, so he could look up Marius’ file if Pete’s behavior (or what have you) sparks his interest. Despite all these triggers to flee, Marius sees the family as his best chance at surviving, and decides to “learn the family business” alongside Julia, which could help pay off his debt.
One can see how “Sneaky Pete” would have become a run-of-the-mill CBS procedural in the vein of “The Mentalist.” Pete would have been Julia’s permanent sidekick. Taylor would have been the no-nonsense cop, always suspicious of the long lost brother come home. Grandma and Grandpa would have been lovably oblivious, just happy to have their family back and ultimately accepting of Pete when (in Season 2 or 3) his true identity was finally revealed.
Thus is not the case now — and thank God for that. Marius and Julia’s relationship isn’t an easy “opposites attract” or buddy cop bond. Any romantic tension is all but eliminated considering she thinks they’re cousins, and the series isn’t handicapped by forcing the two into a case-of-the-week pattern. Taylor’s cop persona is a bit too blunt force to be a threat to Marius, and far too cute to be the brooding copy always hovering in the background.
Yet it’s Grandma and Grandpa who buck expectations to the deepest degree. Audrey is a shrewd observer of people, which makes a lot of sense considering she’s been pulling ex-cons off the streets her whole life. She wants to know more about her long lost grandson, but she doesn’t go about her search for truth in a diabolical manner. Instead, she’s patient, efficient, and aptly limited in scope: Audrey doesn’t expect the new Pete to be a stranger. She just wants to know if the boy she knew has grown into a man she can trust.
Otto, meanwhile, is more inherently trusting due to a giving personality. Early and often, he volunteers to watch the kids or run the errands when Audrey expects more personal accountability. Her secret side and his open engagement make for an endearing couple, but also one fittingly contentious. They’re refreshing characters we don’t often see: an authentic golden-age pair with a history we can see on screen. They’re not perfect. They’re not stuck in their ways. They’re not passive. Grandpa and Grandma are players in this game, and the long con is all the better for it.
Tying it all together is Cranston. As the central antagonist — a mark who used his powerful connections to make his con artists — the “Breaking Bad” veteran imbues much of his menace into Vince’s movements, and it’s his presence and pacing that help mask at least one clunky exposition dump. But what really builds the character is his comedy: Vince, for as scary as he can be, walks around with an almost uncaring air of superiority. His confidence doesn’t blind him, though. It entertains him, and thus entertains us. He feels challenged by Marius in a way that excites him even when it infuriates him. While the duo don’t reach a relationship akin to Batman and the Joker, where one cannot truly thrive without the other, it’s hard to imagine where “Sneaky Pete” would go without Vince’s driving persona.
With Cranston on board as an actor, producer, director (he helmed Episode 7), and creator, that’s not really a concern. “Sneaky Pete’ is a fun binge, and its future — after nearly becoming a CBS procedural before the network passed on the pilot — is looking brighter than ever.