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Amazon’s Sneaky Pete never met a cable drama cliché it didn’t love

It’s Breaking Bad, if Breaking Bad had aired on CBS — but that’s not a complaint, necessarily.

Sneaky Pete
Giovanni Ribisi plays the con man who’s the “sneaky Pete” of Amazon’s Sneaky Pete.
Amazon

Sneaky Pete, Amazon’s latest streaming drama, is the sort of TV show that’s easiest to describe in terms of other TV shows.

Rating


3.5


The series is heavily indebted to things you’ve seen before, to the degree that it’s cast a lot of people you probably love from things you’ve seen before. It also does a lot of stuff you’ve seen before — in a less compelling way, but also in a way that makes it better than most other rip-offs.

The result feels slightly like Hollywood Mad Libs — take this element of this successful drama and plug it into this one. See what happens.

It’s an easy, breezy watch, though. Sneaky Pete boasts a lot of great writers, directors, and actors, and they make a somewhat predictable and typical tale go down smoothly. Few of the 10 episodes cross the 50-minute mark, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the show “tight,” it’s at least not particularly bloated.

It’s still a weird, derivative show — but a reasonably enjoyable one. Here are three ways you might describe it to somebody on the fence about checking it out.

1) Sneaky Pete is CBS’s take on Breaking Bad

Sneaky Pete
Co-creator Bryan Cranston also stars in Sneaky Pete as the season’s main villain.
Amazon

I’m actually being somewhat literal about this. Sneaky Pete was created by David Shore (who made the Fox medical drama House so entertaining there for a while) and Bryan Cranston (the star of Breaking Bad) for CBS.

The premise — about a con man who’s pretending to be somebody else to ingratiate himself to a family of bail bondsmen he thinks he can scam — is exactly what you’d expect from a broadcast network trying to make its own version of Breaking Bad. It keeps the broad strokes of someone living a double life and the intersections of the criminal world and the non-criminal world, but with a lighter tone, more relaxed pacing, and characters who are less conflicted about their moral choices.

CBS ultimately passed on Sneaky Pete, but then Amazon picked it up. There are signs here and there that it was slightly redeveloped for a streaming service. The content is superficially more “adult,” and it’s more serialized than you’d expect from a CBS series.

But Sneaky Pete can never shake its roots entirely. Every time you think it’s about to go in a darker, more morally complicated direction, it backs away from that choice, and the story itself maintains a slightly detached feeling. I’m not sure I could tell you anything about the characters beyond, “They are very good at their jobs,” which is essentially what I could tell you about most of the characters on CBS’s other (mostly procedural) dramas.

This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Not every TV show can (or should!) be a meditation on the darker sides of humanity, and Sneaky Pete is a cut above many other low-calorie riffs on cable dramas. But you’ll always be aware that you’re watching Diet Breaking Bad.

2) Sneaky Pete is The Cable Drama All-Stars Do Summerstock

Sneaky Pete
Margo Martindale plays Pete’s grandmother, who takes the fake Pete under her wing.
Amazon

Summerstock theater is, for kids trying to break into the stage acting world, often a lot of fun. The shows aren’t particularly weighty or serious, the audiences aren’t looking for anything especially deep, and most summerstock companies put on a variety of shows each season, which means lots of chances to play very different characters from one night to the next.

Likewise, Sneaky Pete isn’t particularly weighty or serious, and will easily appeal to those who just want some sly and breezy fun. It just replaces “kids who just graduated college with theater degrees” with some of your favorite actors, writers, and directors from other shows and movies.

The central role of Marius, the con man who adopts the identity of “Pete” for his long con, is played by Giovanni Ribisi, probably best known for his film work, and he essentially gives Marius a character arc that’s barely suggested on the page. That arc is, “Marius gets too close to the family he’s conning,” a story you’ve heard before, but Ribisi sells both Marius’s guilt and his inability to resist the allure of a really great con in equal measure.

The family itself is stacked with talent. Margo Martindale (of Justified and The Americans and everything) is the matriarch, with Peter Gerety (of The Wire, among many others) as her husband, who’s lost a step after a stroke. Marin Ireland — she was one of the most memorable terrorists on Homeland — plays their granddaughter, who is being primed to take over the family business. (There are two other grandchildren, played by less recognizable faces Shane McRae and Libe Barer, but both are solid.)

Even many of the smaller roles feature recognizable faces. Bryan Cranston himself plays the season’s main villain, and he appears in far more of the show than you’d expect, given his thriving film career. Alison Wright (Martha on The Americans) drops by occasionally as an old con friend of Marius’s. And so, so, so many Justified cast members turn up in parts large and small, including Jacob Pitts as Ireland’s character’s ex and Brad William Henke as a decent dude whose life intersects with Marius.

This commitment to casting really good actors in even the smallest of pivotal parts gives Sneaky Pete an extra sheen of quality that I’m not sure it precisely earns. It also extends to behind the camera, where Justified showrunner Graham Yost and that show’s primary director, Michael Dinner, took over from Shore when the show changed hands between CBS and Amazon.

Yost and Dinner are clearly having fun with the con artist genre, with Yost in particular bringing his trademark snipe-y dialogue and love of richly detailed monologues to his scripts and Dinner unfurling many of the show’s best cons in a smart, restrained fashion. Both have done better work elsewhere, but having them here helps keep Sneaky Pete on a slightly higher level.

3) Sneaky Pete is basically John Wick, but about magic thieves

Sneaky Pete
Everybody’s conning everybody else in Sneaky Pete.
Amazon

In its final two episodes, Sneaky Pete delivers some fun set pieces, particularly when all of the season’s subplots collide in unusual and surprisingly exciting ways. (Yost and his writers delicately wrap almost every storyline, no matter how extraneous, into the main one by the end — which is not easy to do.)

But all of that might obscure just how confused and muddled Sneaky Pete can seem at times. In its early episodes, it’s very much a lightly serialized procedural about a family of bail bondsmen chasing down those who would otherwise escape them while Pete tries to curry favor with the family.

That’s not the most exciting show in the world, so around episode four or five, it abruptly becomes a show where seemingly every person in the greater New York City area is running a con on some random person they know.

Again, pretty much every part is played by a fun actor (including musical theater legend Ben Vereen!), but at times it sort of recalls how John Wick was set in an alternate universe where everybody was an assassin, with exactly the same level of verisimilitude as that film.

Consequently, any time you feel like you might be on solid ground, the show pulls the rug out from under you. That’s fun, insofar as it goes, but it’s also a little exhausting. By the time you reach the cliffhanger — which did not leave me excited to check out season two, even though I generally liked season one — you’ll probably have recognized Sneaky Pete for the largely fun, largely inoffensive, largely unnecessary trifle it is.

But hey, TV needs trifles too. Better this than some of Amazon’s other output.

Sneaky Pete is streaming on Amazon Prime.