You know what I want right now? Escapism. Ok. Fine. That’s always what I want, but now more than ever. And what better way to escape than by watching a bunch of cons get themselves into some very hairy situations. I mean, look, I get that no one wants to be lied to or conned in real life, but it’s a helluva lot of fun to watch the people on Sneaky Pete lie, cheat, and steal their way through the series. And that’s not to say all the characters are unlikeable “bad guys,” quite the opposite, but their relationship with truth and rules is, to put it mildly, flexible. This show is wall-to-wall secrets and cons. It’s some good dirty fun that moves at a pounding pace and is nearly impossible to stop watching.
Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) is a conman nearing the end of his prison stint. Among other things, he’s looking forward to escaping his cell mate Peter Murphy’s (Ethan Embry) stories about his lost bucolic summers spent with his cousins on his wealthy grandparents’ farm. The green was the greenest green, the apples the most delicious, and the world was at its most perfect there. His grandparents were in the bond business and wealthy, he tells Marius, but they still always made time to shower Pete with love.
That is, until Pete was ten and he and his mother left and never saw them again. Just when Marius can’t take any more of the rhapsodizing, his own beloved but witless brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer), lets him know that they still owe Vince (Bryan Cranston), former cop turned vicious criminal, $100,000 and that Marius can’t return to the city until he has the cash. Oh, and if he takes longer than a week to get it, one of Vince’s lackeys will start removing Eddie’s fingers—which he very much needs for his work as a dealer in illegal poker games—with a bolt cutter. Honestly, it’s quite the pickle.
So, Marius decides to go to the grandparents’ farm, hoodwink the doddering old people by pretending he’s Pete Murphy, get the money from the safe that Pete’s been yammering on about, pay off his debt, and free his brother. Easy peasy, right? Of course not!
The grandparents, Otto (Peter Gerety) and Audrey (Margo Martindale), round and soft with age, along with Pete’s cousins, seem entirely fooled by the ruse of Marius as Pete, and it looks like this will be the story of how long he can con them into believing he’s their long-lost family member while holding the criminals at bay.
All by itself it’s a pretty good premise. Giovanni Ribisi has an elastic kind of face that moves seamlessly from conniving to kind, from handsome to devious, from hangdog to triumphant, which is perfect for the role of conman. He has just enough kindness, just enough of a code of ethics, and just enough devotion to his craft that he’s appealing, and I wasn’t surprised to find myself rooting for his success in conning the shit out of everyone. It’s mesmerizing to watch him recalibrate after making a mistake and spin another lie to keep his marks where he wants them, or to realize that when he looked lost, he was really three steps ahead of everyone else. And there is something deeply humanizing about the look of shock, sadness, pain, and disgust that crosses his face every time someone is killed or hurt in front of him, which happens not infrequently. He shrinks back in an almost childlike way that lets you see, just for a moment, his vulnerabilities laid bare. Or maybe not. He is a conman after all.
Anyway, the thing is, Pete’s family members are not exactly what they seem, and Marius may have a lot more in common with them than he thought. First of all, they’re in the bail bonds business, not the stocks and bonds business like the real Pete thought. (His cousin Taylor (Shane McRae) has become a cop with the Bridgeport police.) Second of all, everyone from the seventeen-year-old rebellious cousin to the matronly grandmother is either deeply suspicious of other people or hiding their own lies. Or both. Usually it’s both. (You could watch this show just to see Margo Martindale as Audrey slide from doting grandmother to cold-blooded bail bondswoman. It’s magnificent.) As Fake Pete, Marius decides to stay and join the family business—where his cousin Julia (Marin Ireland) also works—as a skip tracer, while also trying to figure out how to collect enough to save his brother’s fingers. At the same time, it’s possible that Marius, who never really had a reliable family, is starting to develop an attachment to Real Pete’s extended family. Meanwhile, the stories of the family’s schemes and cons and suspicions and schemes begin to emerge and, as they do they crisscross and tangle with Marius/Fake Pete’s current and past deceptions until they are all enmeshed in a heart pounding (and often quite funny) plot. Players from Marius’s life before jail reluctantly resurface—it seems there were some serious hiccups in Marius’s last scheme and people have moved on to safer cons—to help him in his plot. And then there’s Malcolm Jamal Warner as Marius’s dogged parole officer who asks all the parolees assigned to him if they want to be “eagles” or “shit birds.” And, of course, Bryan Cranston is pretty fantastic as a dangerous and pontificating villain with reptilian calm. It’s all deliciously well wrought and a thrilling watch.
(As a side note: I did have a really hard time distinguishing between four women with medium length brown hair that play very different characters. Yeah, maybe some of that is on me not paying close enough attention, because really they don’t look that much alike. But, at the same time, they all look enough alike that I spent a fair bit of time wondering if someone involved in the casting has a very particular type, or if it would be something to do with Marius’s backstory that would eventually come out. It’s still a mystery.)
In the first season in particular, the flames of reality are always licking at Marius’s heels. He is always one false move, one computer click, one resurfaced letter, one dedicated parole officer away from being caught and then exposed as a fake, killed, or sent back to jail. I spent a lot of time holding my breath as, again and again, the series let things careen dangerously close to disaster before veering away into some other mess. (I mean, sometimes I just wanted these people to be able to squeeze in a nap or a nice hot shower. They all must be exhausted.) The second season picks up mere moments after the first one ends and sends Marius, Pete’s family, and even the real Pete himself racing to outsmart another dead-eyed criminal. The third and final season was weaker and far less compelling, but still ended with a satisfyingly unsatisfying end to the series.
Look, Sneaky Pete is for sure not a documentary, so maybe it takes a certain suspension of disbelief to really enjoy some aspects of the show. I don’t know if it’s any different than the leap of faith it takes to enjoy certain aspects of romantic comedies, but I’ve noticed that sometimes people get a little belligerent when trying to suss out how realistic it is for someone to pull off a con. (Just like they get very worked up about Romantic Comedies being predictable.) Like suddenly we all have doctorates in confidence games or something. But for me, watching is not unlike watching someone do a sleight of hand trick. The magic is in the skill of the misdirection and the deception. So, if you’re looking for a brief escape hatch from the current reality of the world being a very overwhelming and scary place, you should definitely watch the video of the penguins exploring the empty aquarium and then maybe give Sneaky Pete a try. You know, unless you’re guarding some very delicate secrets and your long-lost cousin just showed up and you have some suspicions about his validity and intentions. In that case it might hit a little close to home.
I went back and forth about the rating for longer than I care to admit. I ended up landing here, but could have easily gone for comfortable because of the third season. Really, it doesn’t matter, it’s good enough to watch!