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Sneaky Pete - Season 1 - Review

Note: This review contains spoilers for the first season of "Sneaky Pete". If you have not seen the show but are considering it, I would suggest the advance preview I wrote a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps the best thing about Amazon's new series "Sneaky Pete" is just how much fun it is to watch. In other hands this show could have used the conman premise to attempt a dreary, dark, self-important drama series with nothing new to say, but with Justified's Graham Yost at the helm "Sneaky Pete" avoided the fate of so many dull streaming dramas by remembering to be entertaining.

This is a show that hardly reinvents the wheel when it comes to TV drama, but it's familiarity works in its favour. In a TV landscape where auteur-driven shows are becoming more and more common-place, "Sneaky Pete" looks and feels refreshingly old-fashioned. This is a show that doesn't rely on impressive visuals or a unique feel and tone, but instead is built purely on very basic foundations for any good show: world-building and characterization.

In my advance review of the series I wrote that the Bernhardt characters were, by the end of the fourth episode, starting to seem like fully-formed individuals rather than hapless plot devices. That continued throughout the season, with the family patriarch Otto (the wonderful Peter Gerety) particular standing out, his attempts to deal with a life falling apart around him growing more and more tragic as the season progressed. In a season of TV that was so often very relaxed and light-hearted, Otto's journey stood out as something far darker, and became all the more moving because of it.

Staying with the Bernhardt's, all the other actors did commendable jobs, and it's to each of their credit that each character never seemed like an idiot for not realizing who "Pete" really is. Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale deserves a special mention, because no matter how often Audrey was out of the loop throughout the season, Martindale made every scene with her riveting.

In my prior review for the show I neglected to mention Jacob Pitts as Lance, Julia's ex-husband, mainly because he didn't really do much in the episodes I saw in advance. But in the middle of the season the show reveals that there's more to the character than was apparent, as it was revealed that he was conning Audrey. This subplot was not only delightful because it gave Pitts the tremendous spotlight he never really got in Justified despite being consistently one of that show's strongest aspects, but it also brought Marius closer to Pete's family as they worked together to get back at Lance.

Marius' growing affection for the Bernhardt's proved especially important by the end of the season, as the show made its intention to continue with that dynamic going forward in future seasons very clear. While the fact that nobody found out Marius isn't who he says he is was frustrating, his interactions with each member of the family were consistently involving, and led to some worthwhile emotional payoffs by the end of the season.

But no matter how much I liked the Bernhardt side of things, the season's true pleasures came whenever the show was exploring its criminal underworld, which it populated with so many fun characters. I mentioned it in the earlier review but it's worth mentioning again: Bryan Cranston was absolutely phenomenal, making the most out of a role that was perhaps a little one-dimensional or derivative on paper, creating a great villain season 2 will find hard to top. And this side of the show all came together brilliantly in the finale, in which the show fully embraced its heist movie influences in a thrilling card-game sequence.

I talk about the show having two different sides, and that's perhaps my biggest flaw with it. As much as I enjoyed the season as a whole, I would have liked it if both the Vince and Bernhardt subplots collided in bigger ways. Yes, there were some moments where that happened, but right up to the end of the season the show felt too divided, and I hope that's rectified for the next season.

Qualms aside, "Sneaky Pete" was a delightful viewing experience, much of which hinged on great performances and the fact that it didn't take itself too seriously. But while the show was very light and fun in places, that didn't undermine the very dramatic character work underneath. "Sneaky Pete" never allowed itself to stagnate in one tone for too long, maintaining a nice balance or drama, comedy, and crime fiction thrills. I look forward to season 2.

Grade: A-

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