By Darren Franich
March 09, 2018 at 03:05 PM EST
Credit: Myles Aronowitz/Amazon Prime
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There’s a scene early in the season 2 premiere of Sneaky Pete that sums up everything wonderful about Amazon’s sly con-man caper. Julia (Marin Ireland) has to launder a lot of money for local crime dude Chayton (Chaske Spencer). She’s not moving fast enough, and Chaske swings by her office. She promises she’s working on it, but Chayton knows she probably has no clue what she’s doing. : He sarcastically says she was probably just googling Money Laundering, and “that movie with Captain Kirk came up.”

And on Julia’s computer screen, we can clearly see a page for Hell or High Water, a movie about money laundering starring Kirk-of-the-Millennials Chris Pine.

And then Chayton explains how the money laundering plot from Hell or High Water wouldn’t work anymore. (The problem is the casino chips, I think.)

There are crime dramas about smart people who only do smart things, and crime comedies about dumb people who only do dumb things. The sneaky fun of Sneaky Pete (streaming now on Amazon Prime) is that everyone is smart but their world is absurd. Best-laid plans are made, and go horribly wrong, forcing desperate improvisations. The show began with Marius (Giovanni Ribisi), an ex-con on the run from some very bad people, assuming the identity of his imprisoned cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry) and hiding out with Pete’s Connecticut relatives, the Bernhardts. But the Bernhardts had their own problems—money problems, affairs, a bail bonds business putting them adjacent to all manner of Connecticotian skullduggery.

By the end of season 1, Marius had resolved his own problems, which means co-creator Bryan Cranston’s time as Sneaky Pete‘s Big Bad has apparently come to an end. But the season ended with a couple mysterious badmen kidnapping Marius—because they think he’s Pete, and they know that Pete owes somebody millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Pete’s grandparents (brilliant Margo Martindale and brilliant Peter Gerety) are struggling with their own secrets, having been involved in the cover-up of a bad cop’s murder. That plotline extends to Pete’s cousin Taylor (Shane McRae), a local policeman who winds up investigating the killing he’s trying to cover-up.

Got all that? The family’s melodrama isn’t always involving. A subplot about Taylor’s affair still feels like a placeholder for future drama, and youngest cousin Carly (Libe Barer) is trapped playing the least thrilling archetype of modern TV drama, the Person Who Is Slowly Figuring Out The Big Lie Of The Show.

But what I’ve seen of season 2 of Sneaky Pete suggests that showrunner Graham Yost is attempting a trick with this show vaguely similar to the long game of his splendid FX series Justified. That Elmore Leonard adaptation is my favorite cop show of this decade, though calling it a “cop show” is like calling Sneaky Pete a Modern Family reboot. Justified could feel old-school in the context of 2010 investigative serials like True Detective or Sherlock. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens didn’t always solve a new crime every week, but he often did. The show crackled with the rhythms of an old-school procedural—even as it gradually expanded into a portrait of a fading Kentucky town, drowning with history and family resentment and bodies piled high as a mountain of coal.

Yost’s work has the pleasant quality of upending your expectations on a nearly scene-to-scene basis. The premiere of Sneaky Pete features a fun con sequence that turns tense and then bloody. There’s also a single-episode subplot that gets at that absurdity I was talking about. (The problem isn’t laundering the money; the problem is finding the money, when your daughter accidentally takes the pink backpack full of illicit bills to school with her.) Problems that more expensive crime shows would gloss over become nigh-existential; how do you move a dead man’s car?

Ribisi continues to give a clever performance that’s only ever heroic by default. The most fun part of any Sneaky Pete episode is the moment when Marius finds himself in a situation he barely understands, and tries to figure out in a few seconds how to dominate the moment. Ribisi’s thin frame and choked voice tends to get him cast as pitiful cowards or (in Avatar) pitiful villains. But he turns Marius into a social stealth missile, so obviously unthreatening that nobody ever notices all the pockets he’s picked. There are more scenes this season with the real Pete, and the contrast of Ribisi to Embry is striking: One’s a criminal demi-god, and the other appears to be a holy fool, barely cognizant of all the trouble he’s in.

Sneaky Pete is built on clockwork-precision pleasures, fine actors and witty dialogue and plotting that turns every minor problem into a life-threatening incident. “Everybody in this family is always keeping secrets!” says Carly. In season 2, the secrets have secrets, and googling Hell or High Water won’t answer anything. Grade: B+

Sneaky Pete

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