For a show about a desperate ex-con looking for his next mark, “Sneaky Pete” is awfully lighthearted. Early on, a criminal tries to shake a tail by convincing his accomplice to do “that thing you did in Wichita.” Recognition dawns on her face.”Are you f–king serious?” she yelps — but then the episode smash cuts, with ruthless amusement, to her doing that thing she did in Wichita, which in this case is drawing away the tail’s attention by appearing nude in an upper-story window. (You can see why she was annoyed.)
“Sneaky Pete” is both crime and caper, walking a fascinating and ultimately successful line between grit and hijinks. The show’s murderous sense of timing makes it feel like a Rube-Goldberg machine of episodic storytelling, where the audience is constantly imagining the many ways this precarious construction will fall to pieces.
It’s a style that befits “Sneaky Pete’s” lead Marius (Giovanni Ribisi), a smooth-talking con man who is always extemporizing, adding frills to a con that is always on the verge of coming apart. Marius is serving the last day of his sentence when he learns that because of an outstanding debt to a vicious gangster, he can’t go home to New York City. So he pivots — and assumes his cellmate’s identity. Pete Murphy (Ethan Embry) has spent the last two years talking endlessly about how idyllic his childhood summers in Connecticut were. Marius uses those details to become Pete — showing up at an elderly couple’s door to declare that he is their long-estranged grandson.
Yet it’s hard to dislike Marius. Ribisi, throughout his career, has demonstrated a lot of love for his too-smart screw-ups and easily overlooked assholes. Marius, in “Sneaky Pete,” is a smooth-talker presented as having a heart of gold — if not pure gold, maybe 14-karat, at least. In one scene, he works so hard to emotionally connect to his mark that he makes himself cry — it’s an act, but he’s also really feeling the pathos, connecting to his own feelings of abandonment and despair to produce a performance that is almost real. Ribisi plays Marius with the contained tension of potential energy about to snap; the wheels in his head are always turning.
And the elderly couple (Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety) isn’t all they seem to be, either. More soon comes to light about both the mess that Marius is in and the family that Pete spoke of so fondly. “Sneaky Pete” plays its cards close to the chest, which makes for occasionally maddening — if entirely realistic — arcs of suspense. One recurring thread is exactly how Pete (the original) became estranged from his grandparents. But Marius-as-Pete can’t figure it out, because no one wants to talk about it. On a squirreled-away piece of paper, Marius keeps updating a family tree. But a more difficult truth, for him, is how much he might actually like this home life, with its specific but increasingly familiar dysfunctions. Watching Marius slowly fall in love with the Murphys is one of the most wonderful (if also stressful) elements of “Sneaky Pete.”
The first four episodes released to critics haven’t quite yet reached the point where Marius is going to have to come to terms with how attached he is becoming to the Murphys — and particularly Marin Ireland’s Julia, his long-lost cousin with whom he has sudden, easy chemistry. But there’s so much other plot, you’re content to wait. Much like Marius, “Sneaky Pete” so throws itself into the art of selling the story that it is mostly convinced itself of every emotional beat; it lives in the moment with precise doling out of suspense and monologue, keeping the audience hooked. Graham Yost, who worked on “The Americans” and “Justified,” brings a keen sense of day-to-day drama, and “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston — who wrote the first episode and developed the pilot — plays the show’s villain, Vince, with fantastic, scenery-chewing enthusiasm.
“Sneaky Pete” is lighter than all of these shows; its crimes are smaller-time concerns, and no one’s humanity is really on the line. Indeed, despite being informed by it, “Sneaky Pete” isn’t a show made on the prestige drama model: It’s essentially fun and easy to watch, and isn’t attempting to comment grandly on humanity. Its themes, whatever they are, are buried in plot — unlike, say, a drama like “Westworld,” which put significance and interpretation so front-and-center that commentary became meta-commentary. “Sneaky Pete” is, by comparison, a more satisfying but less ambitious show, a delightfully plotty potboiler.
Because the plot relies on schemes and secrets, the show’s quality is ultimately dependent on how all of these threads get resolved. But based on how nimbly the first few episodes jumped through its own hoops, there’s ample room for optimism.