Transparent is rightfully the most critically acclaimed series on Amazon Prime; The Man in High Castle is the streaming service’s most watched; Catastrophe is its funniest; One Mississippi is the achiest; Red Oaks is its most under-appreciated; and Goliath is its most conventionally solid series.
Sneaky Pete, however, is Amazon Prime’s most addictive, most binge-worthy series yet, a show that manages to out-Netflix Netflix. Netflix had found the perfect formula in House of Cards and Orange is the New Black — great character dramas with lots of levity, quick-moving storylines, a mix of light and dark, and stakes that were character-centered — but until Travelers came along, the streaming service had put out a lot of quality television, but it hadn’t had a highly addictive series in a while.
Amazon’s Sneaky Pete once again achieves that perfect formula, and once it gets going, it’s impossible to stop watching (I had no intention of doing so, but I watched the entire 10-hour series in one sitting on Friday, finishing around 2 a.m. the next morning). After the sixth episode, viewers may as well block out the rest of their night, because it’s going to be difficult to pull yourself away.
The show comes from creators Bryan Cranston — who also plays the series’ villain — and David Shore (House), but it is the contributions of Justified showrunner Graham Yost that are most felt. Remember how in Justified’s best seasons, those hour-long episodes felt like 20 minutes? Yost brings that same crackling Ocean’s 11 energy to Sneaky Pete and a lot of the same actors, to boot.
The hook, as silly as it is, will grab you all the same: Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius Josipovic, a career con-man who — after being released from prison — steals the identity of his prison mate, Pete (the perfectly cast doppelgänger, Ethan Embry). Marius — who is being hunted down by Vince (Bryan Cranston) because of a $100,000 debt — uses all of the stories he’s heard from Pete about his upbringing and goes back to Pete’s grandparents’ house. They haven’t seen Pete in over 20 years — since Pete was 11 — and with the knowledge Marius gained about Pete’s life, he has little problem convincing Pete’s grandparents, Otto (Peter Geraty) and Audrey (Margo Martindale) that he is Pete. They take him in and hire him as an investigator for their bail bond company. Meanwhile, Marius has his eyes on the safe in the company office, which he hopes to break into, steal $100,000, and spare his brother — who has been abducted by Vince — from getting his fingers chopped off.
Complications naturally arise. For one, Marius develops a strong bond with Pete’s family, although Pete’s younger cousin suspects that Marius isn’t who he says he is. Marius also develops a strong emotional attachment to Pete’s older cousins, Taylor (Shane McRae) a police officer, and Julia (Malin Ireland), who is dating a lawyer (Jacob Pitt, aka, Deputy Tim from Justified) who is also trying to con Pete’s family.
The characters here are fantastic. Martindale is, as always, terrific as the grandmother with a dark secret of her own. Ribisi will grow on viewers a lot over the course of the series, as will Malin Ireland. The younger cousin, played by Libe Barer, is a spiritual cousin to Kaitlyn Dever’s character in Justified. Pitts is goofy-charming and so different than his Justified character that it took me a few episodes to realize it was him. Cranston is Cranston: He’s a ruthless kingpin criminal, but the character is basically dead center between his Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle characters. He’s dangerous, but funny.
It’s a seriously entertaining show — full of little capers and stand-alone stories, not unlike Justified — but there are some real stakes involved, too, and a few bodies do eventually pile up (deaths, as they were in Justified, are usually seriocomic in nature). As the noose tightens around Marius’ neck, it becomes an impossible series to turn off because it’s so easy to invest in these funny, flawed characters, and we don’t want to see their lives upended. After 10 hours that feel like two, you’ll be aching to start another season of Sneaky Pete, even if it is two in the morning.