If one can suspend – no, expel – disbelief, the Amazon series “Sneaky Pete” is twisty fun.
That premise, though: Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius, an imprisoned con man whose chatty cellmate, Pete (Ethan Embry), is always jawing on about his idyllic childhood, surrounded by family, at his grandparents’ Connecticut farmhouse.
Marius thinks Pete is a windbag and tells him so, but his slight resemblance to Pete comes in handy when Marius, upon being released, discovers the gangster (Bryan Cranston, who also co-created the show) he tried to swindle wants greater financial payback now. Money that Marius lacks.
With returning home to New York out of the question, Marius goes to Connecticut, and pretends to be Pete, who had not seen his grandparents (Peter Gerety and Margo Martindale) and cousins (Marin Ireland and Shane McRae) since he was a child. Though initially slightly suspicious of Pete’s return, they are mostly happy to have “him” back. And glad when their prodigal relative tells him he worked as a skip tracer, which makes him a perfect addition to the family bail-bonds business.
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A person’s features do not change enough from childhood to adulthood that intimate relatives would not spot an impostor immediately. But once you get past this incontrovertible truth, “Pete” draws you into its lie-upon-lie permutations and unexpected warmth.
Ribisi historically has shown three expressions on screen: crazed, nervous and poker-faced. He taps that last one almost exclusively, and appropriately, in the seven “Pete” episodes we watched (10 are available). Ribisi’s stony expression fits scenes of Marius’ criminal activity as pickpocket and sleight-of-hand man and gives Marius cover as he tries to match Pete’s relatives’ family stories with what his cellmate told him about his childhood.
Cranston takes Walter White’s iciness upscale as the owner of a high-stakes illegal gambling operation. But the menace he exudes never interests as much as the jams Marius gets in, trying to sell his story and steal money from Pete’s relatives to pay back the gangster. The thin threads connecting his lies lead to tension, but in more of a “Three’s Company,” nobody-has-all-the-information comedic than crime-thriller way.
That’s partly because of the series’ deft comic lines, many delivered by Pete’s down-to-earth family, all of whom love each other, and want to love this grown-up Pete. Ireland is endearing as Pete’s cousin, Julia, who is kind to the would-be Pete and brings enthusiasm to her job at the family business instead of just phoning it in. A series built on a narrative house of cards needs a genuinely sympathetic character like Julia as foundation.
Streaming on Amazon