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Sneaky Pete - Season 1 - Advance Preview

"Sneaky Pete", Amazon's latest drama series, has finally arrived after a delayed production process, which saw original showrunner David Shore replaced by Graham Yost after the show's pilot was produced. Luckily, the change in showrunner is not too noticeable, with the tone remaining consistent across the pilot (first released way back in 2015), and the rest of the season, at least from the four episodes I've seen as of writing this review.

This is fortunate because "Sneaky Pete" is a rather good show. This is not too much of a surprise given the people involved. Graham Yost, the new showrunner, is perhaps most well known for running FX's outstanding series Justified, and some of that great show's quirky tone and atmosphere translates to this new show. The pace of "Sneaky Pete" is faster than most streaming dramas, with moments of sharp dialog and levity scattered throughout to stop the show wallowing in too much misery.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, as I haven't even gotten into what this show is about. Giovanni Ribisi plays the titular character, whole real name is Marius. Marius is a con artist who, after three years in prison, gets out on parole and immediately assumes the identity of his cellmate Pete. His plan: visit Pete's grandparents, who may be rich, in order to rob them to repay the money he owes a cop-turned-gangster named Vince, played by Bryan Cranston (who also co-created the show along with Shore), in his first major TV series role since he said goodbye to Walter White.

This is a solid TV premise, and "Sneaky Pete" uses it to its advantage, deriving much of its drama and tension from Marius/Pete trying to maintain his fake identity while interacting and living with the extended family of his former cellmate (who haven't seen the real Pete since he was a little boy). Marius ends up staying with the family longer than he anticipated because, as it turns out, they're not that rich at all, and in fact own a humble bail bonds business.

As I said, the show derives much of its drama from Marius interacting with the family, the Bernhardts, and this works especially well because of the actors playing the family, which includes grandparents Audrey and Otto, and cousins Julia, Taylor, and Carly. The cousins are played by Marin Ireland (who's excellent in the show), Shane McRae, and Libe Barer. Otto, meanwhile is played by "Wire"-alum Peter Gerety, and Audrey is played wonderfully by Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale. While the show's central tension of Marius trying to rob the Bernhardts and keep his identity a secret could grow tired, and will eventually make the family characters seem like idiots, the performances (including Ribisi's charming presence in the lead role), keep things interesting, and by the end of the fourth episode the family characters started to become more fleshed-out and develop their own subplots and arcs.

But much of "Sneaky Pete"'s best material doesn't include the Bernhardts, and instead comes in the form of really cool world-building, a hallmark of both Yost and Cranston's previous shows. Over the four episodes I've seen, Yost and co. craft a fascinating criminal underworld of gangsters and con artists, filling it with colourful characters. From Vince's muscular, no-nonsense, ruthless, dog and soap opera-loving henchman Richard to an interesting turn from the wonderful Alison Wright (in her natural geordie accent) in a mysterious role as an old associate of Marius, "Sneaky Pete" quickly establishes an interesting world you're going to want to return to.

While Cranston isn't hugely prominent in the series, he is undoubtedly its biggest draw, and he steals every scene he's in, gleefully chewing into the character's monologues with a charming menace. In fact, one extended monologue at the end of the show's fourth episode may be enough to get Cranston yet another Emmy nomination. Vince is the show's primary villain, and while the character's villainy may soon grow tiresome, the performance of Cranston is so effortlessly watchable that I'll be happy with the character sticking around.

This show isn't without dramatically dark or intense moments, but it avoids being the slog so many of its fellow streaming shows end up as because it has a great sense of humour, and doesn't take itself too seriously. As one would expect a show from Graham Yost, the comedy is dark but not cynical, lending to build up the world and the characters while making the show a very enjoyable viewing experience. Episodes run at least 50 minutes, but you don't feel it because of the perfect balance of humour and drama and old-fashioned thrills.

Ribisi has always been a likable presence on screen, and his central performance here is effortlessly charismatic and charming, but also contains an underlying pathos. Despite the plot revolving around his character trying to rip off this hard working family, it's hard not to like Marius, and much of that is due to Ribisi. As the series progresses we see him develop connections with each member of the family, in particular Marin Ireland's Julia, and it's clear that Marius is getting far closer to them than he would care to admit.

"Sneaky Pete" hardly reinvents the wheel of prestige drama, in fact it often feels very anti-prestige (which makes sense, given that the show was originally intended for CBS, who passed on the pilot), but the four episodes made available to me give me a lot of confidence that this is a show that could be a source of reliable and engaging entertainment going forward. For now, the show's main premise is working, but Marius' deception of the Bernhardt's can only last so long before getting stale. But the world-building done in the show (much of which I haven't even mentioned), indicates that the show will be able to pivot when the time comes.

Grade: A-

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