“Sneaky Pete” is indeed pretty sneaky. At first you’re rolling your eyes at what seems an absurd stretch of a premise, but soon enough you’re buying its always-on-edge predicaments and after a few episodes you’re hooked into its story-upon-story acrobatics. Pete may be sneaky, but he’s not dull.
He’s also not Pete. Giovanni Ribisi (“Avatar”) stars as Marius Jocipovic, a con man awaiting release from prison when he finds out a big-time gangster on the outside (played with oily glee by Bryan Cranston) figures Marius owes him $100,000. Going back to New York City does not seem a healthy option.
But then his younger brother is in the city. And so is his parole officer. So Marius has to be in its orbit. What’s a con artist to do?
Pull a con, obviously. Marius has been listening to his cell mate drone on about the perfect childhood he had with his grandparents in Connecticut, although he hasn’t seen them in 20 years. They’re about the same build and coloring, so Marius decides he’ll present himself to the grandparents as his cell mate: Pete.
This is, of course, a risky proposition. Especially when it turns out Pete has plenty of relatives who remember him, including an attractive cousin named Julia (Marin Ireland). Then things take another turn as the family needs help with its business — bail bonds. Suddenly Pete/Marius is tracking down criminals for a living. All while a gangster is looking for him.
The show is produced by Cranston, David Shore (“House”) and Graham Yost (“Justified”) and has something of a “Justified” vibe, even if nobody’s wearing a white hat. There’s a reveling in dangerous characters, a pervasive/perverse sense of humor and Ribisi — who sports a marvelously strained smile — makes Marius a sympathetic and morally torn weasel.
The show also features Margo Martindale (who won an Emmy for “Justified”) as Pete’s suspicious grandmother and its always glorious when she turns on the danger.
Amazon renewed “Sneaky Pete” for a second season within a week of its release, so the show’s not going anywhere any time soon. Its many complications will continue to mount, and likely please.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic