Spoiler Warning!

This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!

Reason The show's first season premieres the day after this post's publication, but its first episode has been available to Amazon Prime members for a while; we got screeners for the next three.

Amazon

Will Watching Sneaky Pete Make You Feel Like You've Been Conned?

...Because this Amazon drama is about a con man.

What Is This Thing?

Marius is a con man who specializes in elaborate schemes involving high-stakes poker games. A few years ago, he got busted trying to scam a violent rich dude named Vince. Unhappy at being fleeced, Vince got revenge by (a) forcing Marius's brother Eddie to work in his underground poker club; (b) murdering Marius's associate Charlie; and (c) indirectly forcing Marius to get arrested. (Marius faked a bank robbery to avoid getting killed by Vince's goons.)

That was three years ago, and now it's time for Marius to get out of prison. But it turns out Vince is STILL pissed. And if Marius doesn't fork over $100,000, then Vince is going to kill Eddie. who's still working for him for some reason.

So what's Marius gonna do? Well: since cons gotta con, he steals the identity of his cellmate, Pete. You see, Pete goes on and on about his rich family in Connecticut, whom he hasn't seen in twenty years. He loves remembering the good times he had with his cousins and grandparents, and oh, wouldn't it be nice to revisit their tire swing and apple trees? Marius has heard Pete's stories so many times that he decides he could pass himself off as Pete...and then steal some of their money to pay Vince.

Off to Connecticut Marius goes, only to discover that Pete's family isn't rich at all. They're bail bondsmen, struggling to keep their business afloat. They also clearly have secrets of their own. Yet they immediately welcome "Pete" with a love he never received as Marius. So now he's living a double life -- part Pete, part Marius -- and trying to pay off his old debts while getting sucked into the drama of his new clan.

When Is It On?

Amazon will release the entire first season on January 13.

Why Was It Made Now?

Technically speaking, it wasn't made "now." Or at least not the pilot, which was commissioned by CBS in 2014. After the Eye rejected it in the spring of 2015, Amazon stepped in, featured it online, and then decided to bring it to series. Things slowed down again, however, when original showrunner David Shore (creator of House) was replaced by Graham Yost (creator of Justified). After all that, the ten-episode first season finally got made.

One assumes that Amazon stuck with it because viewer response to the pilot was strong. Or because they wanted to work with Bryan Cranston, who exec produces and plays Vince. Or because somebody at Amazon needed to fake a new identity and was looking to this show for tips.

What's Its Pedigree?

Along with Cranston, the cast boasts Margo Martindale as Pete's grandma Audrey, who is both the family matriarch and the iron-willed boss of the bail bond business. Malcolm Jamal-Warner continues his Prestige TV renaissance by playing Marius's parole officer. Academy Award nominee Michael O'Keefe -- who shows up in everything if you wait long enough -- plays a crooked cop on Vince's payroll.

...And?

I get why this show was originally slated for CBS. It has the fizzy energy of the network's procedurals about ethnically diverse misfits catching bad guys. Like your basic episode of Elementary, the stories are overly complicated and full of logical holes, and the dialogue tends to be wooden and explainy. Yet there's so much damn energy on screen that it's easy not to care. You can turn off your brain and savor the zippy pacing, trusting that the most important plot points will be reiterated in helpfully blunt conversations over family meals that symbolize how relatives stick together.

I basically mean that as a compliment. I've always got room for a low-commitment caper series, provided it has interesting enough conflict and the cast has interesting enough chemistry. And Sneaky Pete has that.

Sure, it's malarkey that Marius can just waltz into this new family without getting clocked, while also maintaining his scheme to get Vince his money. It's also baloney that he is so naturally gifted at being a bail bondsman that within the first three episodes, he has apprehended a murderous criminal, convinced a woman that her dead husband's worthless clock is valuable enough to be put up for bond collateral, and still managed to take his grandma to lunch.

But I'm down! I'm also down with his fake family's twisted inner lives. Grandma Audrey is harboring some secrets about infidelity, and cousin Julia -- whom Audrey constantly belittles and who is trying her best to raise two kids alone -- seems like she's a flat tire away from going apeshit.

I've been pondering why such convoluted storytelling works for me here, when it turned me off in The Catch. Partly, it's because Sneaky Pete has moments of genuine tension. There's a bit where Marius's brother Eddie tries to escape from Vince, and the outcome is chilling. There's a part where a criminal's mom tries to shirk a bond payment, and Audrey threatens her with such calm, quiet venom that I assume she's killed someone before. There are real stakes, is what I'm saying, and not everything feels like a lark.

Plus, Audrey is played by Margo Martindale, so of course she makes that menacing scene work.

Amazon

Amazon

And Marin Ireland (who's been on lots of TV, but whom I mostly know as a brilliant theatre actor) makes Julia complex and human. And Bryan Cranston, hamming it up as Vince, is a joy to watch. If there were actors this good on Scorpion, I'd probably watch that, too.

... But?

Then again, Alison Wright, who is so brilliant as Martha on The Americans, is mostly wasted in the first three episodes here. She's playing one of Marius's con-job associates, but it's not clear why she's around. Meanwhile, there are two young, dark-haired women in Marius's life that are so similar -- and so poorly delineated -- that I can't tell them apart. One of them is dating Vince. One of them has a kid. Who knows? I suspect I will never be entirely clear about what the hell is going on.

... So?

But whatever! Sneaky Pete is entertaining enough for January, when I'm waiting for Fargo and Orphan Black to return. And because I can binge the entire season, instead of trying to stay interested for ten drawn-out weeks, I'm more than happy to take on the (con) job. If nothing else, I might get to see Margo Martindale go kabuki on someone.

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