“Sneaky Pete,” Amazon’s new 10 episode crime caper is a drama without the labor of watching a drama. Drawing from a familiar storyline, a pool of actors and the bankable talent of its creators, the series has all the components of (what could be) a thrilling drama, but falls short of using all of its ostensible advantages to their full potential. It’s compelling enough to follow along and executes twists and turns at all the right points, resulting in a predictable story and a rather flat ensemble of characters that go through the motions of the plot rather than tautly navigating it.
Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete” wasn’t always Amazon’s. The pilot was originally sold to CBS in 2015 by Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and “House” creator David Shore. However, after the network passed on it and Shore divested from the project, Amazon swooped in and took the pilot to series with “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost as executive producer along with Cranston to develop the series.
Though the show underwent several key changes after making the shift from a network to a streaming platform (including Cranston’s appearance on the show as Vince), it still retains a network feel, with procedural elements and a vaguely episodic structure.
After being released from prison, Marius (Giovanni Ribisi, “My Name is Earl”) finds out that he is in debt to Vince (Cranston), a menacing gangster from his former life. To fly under the radar while trying to scrounge up the $100,000 he owes, Marius assumes the identity of his former cellmate, Pete (Ethan Embry, “Grace and Frankie”). He ingratiates himself with Pete’s family after arriving at the home of his grandparents, Audrey (Margo Martindale, “The Americans”) and Otto (Peter Gerety, “Prime Suspect”) Bernhardt. Marius, assuming Pete’s identity, is welcomed back warmly, albeit hesitantly, after a 20-year estrangement during which Pete’s aunt and uncle died in a tragic car accident that left his cousins in the care of their grandparents.
If this is Cranston’s and Amazon’s attempt to capitalize on the success of “Breaking Bad” by not-so-subtly reimagining the antihero plot as an episodic crime caper, they could have tried a little harder. Granted, “Breaking Bad” had the luxury of a 22 episode season to develop its protagonist; however, even from the pilot episode of “Breaking Bad” it was clear that Walter White (Cranston) was a compelling and nuanced character. Marius — whose troubled childhood propelled him and his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer, “Mr. Robot”) into a life of crime that landed Marius in jail before the series begins — isn’t as sympathetic a character as the series wants us to perceive him to be.
Within the first few scenes of the pilot, Marius bristles at his cell mate’s accusation that he’s nothing more than a con-man, responding, “I’m a confidence man. I give people confidence, they give me their money.” With that, he dispels any subsequent notion of his authenticity as a character.
Through flashbacks and exposition, the series switches between depicting Marius’s con-man lifestyle as his only means of survival and his chosen path. Neither are very interesting characterizations, especially compared to the Bernhardts, whose complex family history and dynamic make them far more absorbing as the focus of Marius’s con.
If the theme of “Sneaky Pete” is that things aren’t always what they appear to be, then it is expertly layered into the series’s auxiliary storylines. The Bernhardts aren’t exactly the picture-perfect family the real Pete had described in vivid detail. His cousin Julia (Marin Ireland, “The Divide”) is a single mother who, under the critical eye of her grandmother Audrey, helps run their struggling bail-bond business while trying to get a grasp on her own life. She wastes no time in reminding Pete (Marius) that their family isn’t what it was 20 years ago. Like Marius, her circumstances disguise her strength of character, making her a compelling force on screen.
Similarly, Audrey is weary of Marius and subtly challenges him to reveal a crack in his facade at each opportunity. While her delivery is subtle, her personality isn’t; Martindale’s performance as the straightforward, no-nonsense matriarch is as captivating as it is entertaining.
Though the familial setting provides a host of challenges to Marius getting out of his and his brother’s debt to Vince while maintaining his false identity as Pete, it also conjures up Marius’s backstory, posing the question of whether his efforts to integrate into the family become genuine or not. With the possibility of getting caught and sent back to prison around every corner of the unfolding plot, the series doesn’t give us much time to explore this part of Marius’s character — relegating him to yet another standard antihero in the increasingly stale series of attempts to glamorize the crime drama.
Even Marius’s brother Eddie serves less as a character in his own right and more as an Achilles heel in a thinly veiled attempt to humanize Marius. It’s Eddie’s blunder that entangles Marius with Vince yet again, making Marius responsible for saving him. The same goes for the Bernhardts, whose various roles appear to mask Marius’ lack of idiosyncrasies. As in “Breaking Bad,” Marius contends with the proximity of a law enforcement official in the family — his cousin Taylor (Shane McRae, “Still Alice”). Though a cop, Shane’s childish obliviousness neutralizes any potential suspense created by these hackneyed circumstances (which the series attempts to capitalize on in Episode 3).
Despite a well-cast ensemble and the merits of having Cranston and Yost attached to the series in name and in vision; it lacks nuance and depth. “Pete” may be sneaky, but the show’s attempt to convince us of its originality is short of being cunning.