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Let yourself be conned by ‘Sneaky Pete’

Giovanni Ribisi and Bryan Cranston light up this Amazon original show

A still from ‘Sneaky Pete’. Giovanni Ribisi plays the lead character slippery as a weasel, all lies and tics, yet conveys a broken likeability.
A still from ‘Sneaky Pete’. Giovanni Ribisi plays the lead character slippery as a weasel, all lies and tics, yet conveys a broken likeability.

One of the oldest and most romanticised confidence tricks is called “the Spanish prisoner". It is an elaborate con—involving the tale of a faraway person currently indisposed who needs resources now, and will later reward giver of said resources multiple-fold—and a primitive version of this has been carried out frequently across the internet using Nigerian princelings. However, like a magician, a con-artist relies on patter and misdirection, which is why any mention of the trick on screen rarely leads to that specific con actually being carried out. In David Mamet’s exquisitely plotted film The Spanish Prisoner, for instance, all is brilliant and sharp and double-edged, but the con used in the film has nothing to do with the one mentioned in the title.

We’re the mark, you see. All of us watching. The whole point of a con movie is that we stay a fair bit more in the dark than we think we are, because, despite picking up on clues and second-guessing where the story will go next, we desperately want to get the rug pulled out from under our collective feet. The other shoe needs to drop unexpectedly, and the truly remarkable con-movies will throw in a cleverly positioned third foot wearing a third shoe. The Amazon original Sneaky Pete mentions the Spanish Prisoner, and, as tradition (and obviousness) dictates, doesn’t go through with it. Instead, it sells us a dummy by giving us a hackneyed premise but making it better crafted and better performed than we could expect.

The story is about a convict (not Spanish, no) called Marius who, when let out of prison, finds himself desperately on the run, fleeing from intimidatingly ruthless men. With his brother hostage and his old life brimming with bloodthirsty enemies, Marius “borrows" a cellmate’s identity and starts living with his family. He is now Pete Murphy, and the show’s title does not exaggerate his guile.

I know, I know, this all sounds done to death, and, honestly, if Sneaky Pete were a two-hour movie, I wager it wouldn’t have been too impressive. However, telling this story intricately over 10 episodes—letting the details bleed out slowly, focussing on characters that may not initially seem to matter, speeding up and slowing down the narrative to throw in meaty cliffhangers like narrative speedbumps—was a cunning ploy. I couldn’t stop watching.

The primary lure is the cast. Giovanni Ribisi, an underrated but always solid performer, stars as Marius, and he’s delightfully shifty while charismatic in the most unlikely way. He plays the lead character slippery as a weasel, all lies and tics, yet conveys a broken likeability. Pete’s grandma is played by—as Bojack Horseman unforgettably calls her—“character actress Margo Martindale", and she’s a compellingly tough cookie. Peter Gerety plays Pete’s grandfather with the frenzied huffing of a man perpetually on the edge of a heart attack, and keeps us guessing. The biggest draw, however, is the bad guy. Upholstered in obnoxiously rich fabric and armed with nightmarish stories he tells before sending folks to their doom, the scenery-chomping villain is played by Walter White himself, Bryan Cranston.

Cranston, in fact, co-created Sneaky Pete along with House creator David Shore, and while some may scoff at this show as less iconic television from folks with such a pedigree, it sure is a great deal of fun. Think of it, if you will, as a low-rent Fargo that wants to tickle you before making you gasp. There’s no loftiness to be found here, just sharp, cleanly sketched plotlines and twists and countertwists, with a generous helping of coincidence to carry things along. When I started watching, it felt like guilty pleasure television—though we really must stop saying that like it’s a bad thing—but each episode built on the details and the characters of the next, and by the time I drank down the last four episodes without pause, Sneaky Pete turned out to be most satisfying.

That said, this column could be a con. Only one way to find out.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @RajaSen.

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