When it comes to TV drama, I like to work a little. And so do many others, as proven by the popularity of “Game of Thrones,” “The Wire,” and that brain-wracking, Escherian game-within-a-game-within-a-game called “Westworld.” Sometimes it seems as though a non-network series can’t truly be considered excellent unless sussing out its mysteries — or even just keeping track of its characters’ relationships — becomes a full-time job.
“Sneaky Pete” is not one of those intricate series. It’s relatively easy to follow, and, more important, it’s a lot of fun. About a con artist just out of jail, it’s not work so much as a cool ride, on the order of nimble con stories such as “Hustle,” “Burn Notice,” “Catch Me If You Can,” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Executive produced by, among others, Bryan Cranston and Graham Yost (“Justified”), the show offers suspense, elaborate deceptions, and close calls without making your head pound. After four preview episodes, I’m ready to ride on with the rest of the 10 episodes of the first season, available Friday on Amazon.
Giovanni Ribisi stars as Marius, who isn’t exactly free now that he’s out of jail. He owes $100,000 to a vengeful mobster named Vince — a supporting role played by Cranston as a hammy villain who can evoke menace with but a smirk. So upon his release, Marius skips New York City and adopts his still incarcerated cellmate Pete Murphy’s identity. Pete (Ethan Embry) has nattered on and on about his childhood at his grandparents’ farm in Connecticut, so Marius goes there claiming to be Pete, their estranged grandson. They buy it, it seems, and they take him in and put him to work at their Bridgeport bail bonds company.
Watching “Pete” improvise along the way is part of the pleasure of “Sneaky Pete,” as he convinces not only grandparents Audrey and Otto — the perfectly cast Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety — but a few of Pete’s cousins, one of whom is a cop named Taylor (Shane McRae). As a career con artist, Marius adlibs his way into and out of tricky situations just as easily as he picks pockets, but living with a cop does have its stresses — something Cranston’s Walter White on “Breaking Bad” knew something about, since his brother-in-law was a DEA agent. Also problematic: Marius’s own emotional needs, which are stoked as he receives the affection of Pete’s family, not least of all cousin Julia (Marin Ireland), with whom he has instant chemistry.
Ribisi does a fine job with this tightrope walk. You can always see Marius thinking ahead, plotting his next move, anticipating betrayal or discovery. He subtly pries information out of his “family,” keeps notes about the Murphy family history on a piece of paper, and tries — but, as we strongly sense, fails — to stay detached. His real brother, Eddie (Michael Drayer), who is still in the city and working for Vince, is too fickle and desperate to satisfy any of his hunger for connection. Compared with the storybook Connecticut family, Eddie offers only trouble. As the grandmother, Martindale is a standout, as usual. Is she really falling for Marius’s act? At moments, Martindale imbues Audrey with delightful shades of suspicion.
“Sneaky Pete,” whose pilot was originally made for CBS, is not filmed with the inventiveness and style of the high-end cable and streaming shows. But the acting and the plots — including one featuring Alison Wright, who was Martha on “The Americans” — are enjoyable and amusing. They’ve won my confidence.
Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Bryan Cranston, Margo Martindale, Peter Gerety, Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Michael Drayer, Libe Barer, Alison Wright, Kevin Chapman
On: Amazon, available Friday