As much as I prefer to avoid overused phrases such as “binge-watch,” here goes: Once you watch the first episode of Sneaky Pete, which starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime, I dare you not to start binge-watching its 10 episodes. Giovanni Ribisi stars in the title role as Marius Josipovic, a devious con man who’s hustling to repay a debt to a gangster played by Bryan Cranston, who’s also one of the show’s executive producers.
The twist in the show — which was created by Cranston and David Shore, the man who brought you House — is that Marius assumes the identity of Pete Murphy, a guy he knew in prison (played by Ethan Embry). Marius/Pete presents himself to Pete’s grandparents — they haven’t seen Pete in 20 years, so they believe him and take him in. The grandparents are played by Margo Martindale (The Americans, Justified) and Peter Gerety, who’s been in so many TV shows and movies, I’ll just say you’ll know his face as soon as you see him. Grandma and Grandpa run a mom-and-pop bail-bonds company in dank Bridgeport, Conn., and Marius/Pete signs on to help.
Hanging over let’s-just-call-him-Marius’s head is the fact that Cranston and his crew have taken Marius’s brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer), hostage until Marius pays off the debt. Sneaky Pete also has Graham Yost as an executive producer, and his fingerprints are all over this comic thriller. As he did in his work on Justified, Yost, who also has a hand in writing some of the episodes, keeps the action moving even when you think the show is just coasting along with a lot of pleasant chatter — he distracts you and then pulls a fast one on you, suddenly plunging Marius into one terrible fix after another.
I don’t want to oversell Cranston’s presence here — he’s got what amounts to a glorified supporting role — but you should not think the amusement of Sneaky Pete hinges on him alone. Ribisi is deadpan funny portraying Marius’s desperation; Martindale and Gerety create a vivid portrait of a longstanding marriage; and Marin Ireland (Girls, Masters of Sex) is excellent as Pete’s cousin, Julia, a rather less skilled bail-bonds employee with whom Marius-as-Pete has sparks that may or may not turn romantic.
The show is studded with fine performances by actors including Michael O’Keefe as a seedy cop, Malcolm Jamal-Warner as a parole officer inspired by self-help tapes he listens to in his car, and Domenick Lombardozzi — Herc in The Wire! — as a criminal whom Marius and the bail-bonds company attempt to capture. Funny and suspenseful, Sneaky Pete is an excellent idea for this weekend’s streaming TV viewing.
Sneaky Pete is streaming now on Amazon Prime.