On paper, Sneaky Pete sounds great. The brainchild of David Shore (House, Battle Creek) and Bryan Cranston, it stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius Josipovic, a con artist who steals the identity of his former cellmate as a way to lay low after being released from prison. Although it had a shaky production history, being passed over by CBS and with Shore leaving the project, it ended up on Amazon Prime in the capable hands of Graham Yost of Justified and The Americans fame. The show is stacked with an incredibly talented cast featuring a ton of Yost alums and career character actors. It sounded like it could be my new obsession. Instead, it ended up being an increasingly frustrating slog, albeit one with some great performances and moments.
Let’s elaborate on the premise. Marius Josipovic is released on parole, but he is immediately told by his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) to go into hiding to avoid the wrath of Vince (Cranston), a gangster to whom they owe six figures. A career con man, Marius decides to impersonate his cellmate Pete, and seeks out Pete’s estranged family for safety and money. He ingratiates himself quickly with cousins Julia (Marin Ireland) and Taylor (Shane McRae), but is met with a cool reception by matriarch Audrey (Margo Martindale). Meanwhile, Marius also has to contend with Vince’s goons, his parole officer, his mistrustful former partners, and so on and so forth.
There’s just too much going on here. Sneaky Pete is a show about cons and subterfuge, and sometimes they execute the cons so that you’re not sure what’s going on initially, either. There’s nothing wrong with this; characters saying “I think I know where he’s going” to each other without filling the audience in is a hallmark of soft procedurals, and after-the-fact reveals are par for the course in con movies (just think of The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven). But this kind of story requires a focus that Sneaky Pete just doesn’t have. The show essentially has two competing supporting casts, between the Bernhardt family Marius is infiltrating and his New York-based former crew. It’s hard to get a feel for the sleepy Bridgeport locale that’s so important to the former group when every episode has Marius sneaking back to NYC to visit the latter. Don’t get me wrong, Sneaky Pete‘s look at seedy backrooms and diners in Manhattan is maybe my favorite visual element of the show, but the show is splitting its focus.
It’s especially stark when you compare this show to almost anything Shore, Yost or Cranston have worked on before. Think about how slow and deliberate the first season of Justified was. Think about how tight the focus of early Breaking Bad was. Everything unfolded at a pace that was easy to follow, so every interaction had weight. Sneaky Pete throws easily a dozen and a half characters at us in the first two episodes, and for some insane reason, it spends the second episode cutting back and forth between various flashbacks to fill in gaps that wouldn’t be there if info hadn’t been withheld in the first place. It’s a show that doesn’t understand “show, don’t tell,” but also never tells us enough
It’s also aggressively contrived, to the point that it stretches our ability to suspend disbelief. Breaking Bad and The Americans have fantastic premises, as well, but they succeed by not pushing past the bonds of the initial setup very often, and including real consequences when they do. While we know that Walt or Philip or Elizabeth aren’t actually going to be caught, there’s real tension. There’s a bit in the third episode of Sneaky Pete where a corrupt cop on Vince’s payroll drives out to Bridgeport to ask around. He walks into the police station, photo of Marius in hand, and is greeted by Pete’s cousin Taylor. But before he can show him the picture that will irrevocably break the show’s status quo, the cop gets an angry call from Vince and leaves. It’s a cheap bit that we know is coming, since it’s too early for any real shakeups, but it also weakens our faith in the show’s ability to tell believable close calls. When Marius realizes at the end of the episode that his real driver’s license has ended up in the trunk of Taylor’s car, I’m not as worried because it feels like a mechanically designed event. He’ll either get it back next episode with no problem, or it’ll pop back up for the big reveal at the end of the season’s second act.
One thing I do want to make clear is that none of the show’s mediocrity is the fault of the cast. Ribisi sells the shifty, awkward Marius well, no small feat given that he’s in almost every scene. Cranston’s occasional appearances are a delight, allowing him to exude natural charisma and a violent edge. He’s more referenced than seen, which is good in the long run as he tends to overshadow the rest of the cast. Margo Martindale’s Audrey is maybe my favorite role of hers yet, sort of a lawful neutral version of Justified’s Mags Bennett synthesized with Martindale’s more comedic work. Even bit players are great, like Malcolm-Jamal Warner as a parole officer/would-be motivational speaker.
Unfortunately, a murderer’s row of character actors isn’t enough to save Sneaky Pete. The pitch for this show seems like a perfect Yost fit, combining the small town intrigue and big, bold characters of Justified with the tension and ambiguity of The Americans. Instead, it’s buried under a mountain of unnecessary characters and droning expository dialogue. With another season to iron out the kinks, I’d hope it could hit its stride, but I’m not very optimistic.
Sneaky Pete is now streaming on Amazon.