Sneaky Pete: Amazon and Sony get Lightning in a Bottle

Giovanni Ribisi aka Sneaky Pete
Sneaky Pete the Amazon and Sony Television Pictures offering, called a TV Movie on IMDb that is, according to Amazon, a series available on Amazon Instant Video, is an almost perfect product, that illusive “lightning in a bottle” or perfect storm, if you will, of serendipitous creation. Everything about the first episode, which one can see on Amazon for free right now, clicks into place like a magnetized puzzle piece.

The storyline, the casting, the chemistry of the actors, and the inclusion of Bryan Cranston as villain, all work together so well, that director Seth Gordon and writer David Shore could give lessons on how to create the perfect pilot episode for a new series.

The appearance of Cranston toward the end of the premiere episode has the air of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” to it. The award winning actor from Breaking Bad, has a connection with Shore via Vince Gilligan, show runner and creator of the AMC fan favorite show, as both men, Shore and Gilligan, were the creators of the short lived CBS series Battle Creek.

Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief director Seth Gordon helms the pilot episode of Sneaky Pete deftly and blends writer Shore’s comedy heavy script perfectly with the serious backstory of Marius/Pete. While the series is labeled as a Drama (dramedy might be more apt) there is enough humor to keep the show from being yet another show based upon a criminal with a heart who shines through a life full of pathos.

The pilot storyline follows Marius Josepovich (Giovanni Ribisi) a confidence man who, until very recently, has been sharing a cell with Pete. During their time together, the con man’s cellmate has talked incessantly of his almost Norman Rockwell type childhood and his grandparents. At the start of the show, Marius angrily tells Pete to stop talking about his perfect childhood. He points out to the other man that his life is far from perfect. That he committed a stupid crime and will be in prison or anther two years at least while he, Marius, will be out in a matter of hours.

After his short conversation with Pete, which ends with his being shoved up against the cell wall, he calls his little brother Eddie. He learns that things will not be too great when he gets out. There are people who want him dead. The next time we see Marius, he is pumping Pete about that perfect childhood, prompting his cellmate to reveal his grandparents address.

Marius shows up at Pete’s familial retreat claiming to be his cellmate and they accept him as the grandkid that they have not seen in two decades. Although, it looks like Grandpa does while Grandma seems to know from the get-go that Marius might just not be Pete.

Marius/Pete meets the cousins, one of whom is a cop, and joins the family business of bail bonds as a skip tracer. Cue a lot of moments of tense comedy while Julia (played by Marin Ireland), who helps Grandma at the office, learns a lot from Pete, including the fact that he is not overly courageous.

The series opener is a splendid mix of comedy and pathos, but mostly it excels at the comedy. Overt humor and sly humor sit side-by-side and each character is presented very well by the script. Little touches are interwoven in the plot to present a depth to each person in the story.

Julia turning out to be very good at “winging it” (reference the “faking their way into the award party scene”) and has bad judgement not just about the men in her life but people in general.

Marius tells the real Pete early on that his mother was an addict. Something that, as a viewer, we tend do disbelieve as he has already been identified as a confidence man. Before the show ends we learn, via the auspices of a flashback at the family meal, that his mom was an addict and that Marius looked after his baby brother Eddie.

Sneaky Pete is not the first form of fictional entertainment to focus on the world of the scam, the con, the clip, et al. Universal’s 1973 hit film The Sting starring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid superstars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was all about the con and the people who practice it.

There is something addictive about a confidence tale. Like a magician the con artist strives to be the “smartest person in the room.” Added to this fascination with the con are characters that the audience immediately like and care about, music that moves the story along brilliantly and a storyline that makes it clear that “Grandma did not fall off the melon truck yesterday.”

At the end of the first episode, while Grandma Audrey (Margo Martindale) is collecting eggs, she tells Marius/Pete in carefully couched terms that she knows. While it is implied that she heard his conversation just prior to coming into the barn, It was shown at the beginning of the episode (in the lemonade scene) that Audrey knows something is not right with this new version of Pete.

Sneaky Pete, which does sound a bit like a Looney Tunes character, like Speedy Gonzales, rather than a show title, is a perfect blend of comedy, information (Think Burn Notice and Michael Weston teaching viewers about being a spy but delivered via the show’s dialogue and not through a voice over narration.) and just a tiny bit of sentimentality.

This series is an epic win for all concerned. Ribisi rocks it as Marius/Pete, Ireland is perfect as cousin Julie, Martindale as the perfect all-knowing grandma and the writing brings enough to the table that the actors all have some great material to work with. Thus far, this Amazon program has no further episodes listed so it will be hard to know when episode two may show up. Till then, watch the pilot and marvel at this lightning in a bottle event. This, quite simply, smashing “television.”

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