I’m rather a fan of con and heist stories, so I confess that I was predisposed to like Sneaky Pete from the start. But this one is perhaps a little different from the kind of movies and TV shows from the genre that we’re used to.
These days the image we have from film and television of con men is a rather glamorous one – Brad Pitt and George Clooney striding through Las Vegas casinos on their way to scoring hundreds of millions of dollars in a daring heist, for example. Or there’s Adrian Lester, Marc Warren and Jamie Murray having impish fun on a small screen budget in Hustle. Then there’s Tim Hutton and his gang of latter day Merry Men (and women) using their grifter skills to right wrongs for others. Either way it all looks good fun, doesn’t it?
Of course the real world reality is a much grimmer and grimier affair. Grifters live in a darker, dirtier and altogether more dangerous world, surviving from hand to mouth and lucky to get away with stealing a few dollars and cents which they’ll gladly take from anyone gullible enough to fall for one of their cons. Usually they’re less than a day away from disaster – from being arrested if they’re lucky, or being beaten to a pulp by a deadly rival or a furious victim if they’re not.
Sneaky Pete is firmly from this latter world: there’s no glamour here, and everything that can go wrong almost certainly will. People will lose fingers, limbs or their lives as a consequence. The con artists may dream big, but the best they can hope to do here is simply to survive. They see everyone as a mark, but at the same time almost everyone they come across is spinning their own con in turn. When it comes to knowing who you can trust, the only rule is that you can’t trust anyone.
An Amazon Original drama, Sneaky Pete was commissioned after going through the ‘pilot season’ process that allows subscribers to feedback on a single episode of a proposed new series, which determines whether it justifies a full season (in this case, ten episodes averaging around 50 minutes each.) The pilot for Sneaky Pete was first aired in August 2015 and the rest of the episodes were finally made available to Amazon Prime subscribers in one go on January 13 2017; a second season has already been confirmed.
The series stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius Josipovic who has just been released from prison after a three-year stint for a spectacularly unsuccessful bank robbery attempt that wasn’t what it seemed. Marius owes a lot of money to the very dangerous Vince Lonigan (played by an uncredited Bryan Cranston, who co-created the show with House’s David Shore and who is also one of the show’s executive producers) and needs a place to lie low outside of New York. He decides to co-opt the identity of his former cell mate Pete Murphy (Ethan Embry) who hadn’t been seen by his own kin in 20 years; when he shows up at the family home in Connecticut, Marius’ silver tongue is enough to persuade them them that he really is their long lost prodigal son.
Well, almost. Pete’s grandmother Audrey Bernhardt (Margo Martindale) is sceptical at first, but she’s busy trying to keep the family business (a bail bonds company) afloat in the wake of her husband Otto’s (Peter Gerety) recent health issues. Their granddaughter Carly (Libe Barer) remains deeply suspicious of the ‘Pete’ who has turned up out of the blue, but Julia (Marin Ireland) is just relieved to have someone around to help carry the burden of keeping the sinking business up and running.
Like Marius himself, the series works to a deadline. Each episode roughly corresponds to each day that passes, with Marius needing to come up with the money he owes Vince by the end of the week or else his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) is going to come to a sticky end. Oblivious to what it will do to his temporary ‘family’, Marius figures that the Bernhardt family business makes a great mark from which to swindle $100,000 he needs to appease Vince. The only trouble is that the longer it takes him to get at the office safe where all the bail collateral is stored, the more it becomes apparent that literally everyone else is up to some sort of con as well, which means everyone trips up over everyone else’s machinations. And all the time, Vince’s tame corrupt NYPD detective Winslow (Michael O’Keefe) is getting closer and closer to finding Marius’ hiding place, which will blow the whole thing appart.
With so many intricately connected plot lines interleaved over the course of the first season, and a host of additional characters swirling about including Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Marius’ diligent parole officer, Jacob Pitts as Julia’s lawyer ex-husband, Karolina Wydra as a classic femme fatale and Ben Vereen as Marius’ old mentor, you really do have to keep your wits about you watching this show. At times it feels like it’s the old spinning plate balancing act where the fun is watching how many things the performer can keep in the air at once before crockery starts smashing to the ground in every direction. But the show has a definite road map through the chaos and by the time you reach the end of journey it’s all come together and paid off very nicely indeed.
While there’s some nice dark humour (and even an exquisitely timed prat fall from someone with a phobia of the sight of blood) the tone of Sneaky Pete is largely very serious, with some daubs of black humour every now and then. There’s tension and some bloody violence, and the sort of language you’d expect from a take of the criminal underworld. But if that sounds like your sort of thing then you should have a blast with this show, which is very definitely superior entertainment of its kind – if not exactly all that different from dozens of crime shows and films that you’ll have seen down the years.
I was mainly attracted to it because of its cast, and they didn’t let me down. Ribisi is one of those actors who has been consistently excellent in a large number of roles (including Saving Private Ryan, The Mod Squad, Boiler Room, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Flight of the Phoenix, Avatar, Ted and as Phoebe’s brother in Friends) while somehow never quite getting the recognition and star roles that he deserves. He manages to make Marius edgy, desperate and hard-edged and yet still loveable despite it all. Similarly, Martindale has stolen shows with recurring roles in the likes of The Americans, The Riches, The Good Wife, Justified and The Millers and is just as wonderful again here. Naturally Cranston is also top-notch, one of the best actors working in film and television today even in what is for him a rather minor supporting role.
All in all I really enjoyed watching this drama, and look forward to the second series which is set up by a brief coda at the end of the final episode. It promises to be a quite different sort of con to come in 2018 now that Marius has said goodbye to the loyal crew that backed his play in this run. Let’s hope that the show’s writers and producers can keep the plates spinning again and match the quality second time around.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
All episodes of season 1 are available for streaming on Amazon Prime.