Almost two years after a single episode of Sneaky Pete was first released, Bryan Cranston decided that we would like to see more of this devious, psychopathic (but non-violent) con man. We can be grateful he did because it appears that during that interlude our nation was conned ― and may be wondering how that happened.
The timing of this year’s release of 10 episodes of Sneaky Pete after our general election thus seems uncanny. As a country, we are already transfixed by our President, who gives new meaning to the art of the con, though he likes to think of it as the art of the deal. Sneaky Peak allows us to look behind the veils of chicanery and to spot bluffing, fabrications and legerdemain by witnessing the life of a fictional character, Pete Murphy (aka Marius Josipovic), played with extraordinary expressiveness and contained agitation by Giovanni Ribisi. Pete bounces from one bad moment or cornered situation to another, yet inexplicably escapes the consequences of his sneaky deeds. Art mimics life, or is it life mimicking art?
Marius (when he lived with his actual name) had been imprisoned for attempting to rob a bank, not a good idea for a bright guy. But he was in big trouble, pursued by dastardly guys, and thought of prison as a safe haven. A bit misguided, but so this story goes. His cellmate is named Pete Murphy (the loquacious Ethan Embry), facing a longer sentence than was Marius. The real Pete endlessly tells tales of his life, family, friends, growing up, and anything else that would bore even a person with nothing but time on his hands. But it turns out that the real Pete’s family has a big bundle of cash.
What’s a (con) guy gonna do when he is released, knowing about the gold at the end of a rainbow? Marius decides to adopt Pete’s identity and returns to Pete’s actual family, pretending to be their long lost relative – while continuing to dodge his pursuers as well as hoping to strike it rich by relieving his new family of whatever they have.
Marius (now Pete if you are still following this story) is a great pretender, fast on his feet, charming and out to be helpful – how else can he gain the access he needs? Yet he also has a bit of a heart, which complicates his difficulties being a hustler. His new family is hugely dysfunctional so he fits right in. He is welcome, though they are suspicious since why would he return after some 20 years? He goes with their peculiar flow and endears himself to grandma (the great Margo Martindale), the matriarch of the family. And Marius (still now Pete) keeps close to his stable of loyal, former conmen and con-women as well as with ex-girlfriends. The ensemble is full of entertaining and (for him) helpful characters as he tries to elude the law, not get killed by bad guys, and relieve his new family of their loot.
Bryan Cranston is not only the (Co)Executive Producer of the show: he treats us to a fair amount of screen time as Vince, a real bad guy who runs high stakes card games, and who knows what else. Cranston (legendary for Breaking Bad, and much more since then) gives us master acting classes while adding to the tension because, as Vince, Marius (still Pete) owes him money. Vince has taken hostage Marius’ brother, Eddie (a kindly, gullible soul and card dealer played by Michael Drayer), and stands ready to eliminate both brothers because according to the honor of thieves, debts unpaid are capital crimes. All this adds urgency to the plot.
Back to why to watch this timely series. We observe some of the great tricks perpetrated by conmen and women, which include: create distractions; ”work the problem” (every snag is a problem to be solved not a reason for dismay); keep promising and promising; focus on the vulnerabilities of those you mean to con; find partners in crime, fellow cons or desperate others to enlist to help work problems along the way; and reach into and execute from your playbook of legendary cons (like the “Spanish Prisoner” and the “Jesus con”). There are more con artist maneuvers we learn as the show unfolds. Think how handy this knowledge can be in our era of “alternate facts” and empty promises that it all “… will be great.” We need the Sneaky Pete lessons to arm us in the days, months and years ahead.
Sneaky Pete, the character, is not only affable he also is given to human kindness, not only as a manipulation ― though he knows that move for sure. His engages us, the audience, as well with his hugely expressive face, changing ten times a minute and impossible not to watch, with his shuffling gait dressed in the same worn jeans and overcoat (regardless of the weather), and with the implied calculations you know are going on in his head, and soon appear on the screen. Ribisi’s acting alone is reason to tune in this show.
Other great contributors are grandpa (Peter Gerety), a former vet running a bail bond shop (with grandma) who is full of piss and vinegar despite having had a small stroke and years of being dominated by his wife. There is their niece, Julia (Marin Ireland), a single mother of two, who helps in the bail business and adds a note of grand hysteria to about everything. And also her sneaky and unlikable ex (an oily Jacob Pitts) and her cousin, a local police officer (a bighearted family-man, Shane McRae). Plus the NY police detective, Winslow (played with contained fury by Michael O’Keefe), who is hunting Marius, as is his parole officer (Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who fills the screen with his size and the outsized ego he portrays). There also are a host of other colorful characters, family, friends and enemies, young and old, Native American, black and white – all given to various forms of mischief themselves.
Sneaky Pete is a cornucopia of psychopaths, liars, deceivers, nasty people, opportunists, and those trapped in state prison and in the prisons of their lives. Yet it does not convey the evil so dominant in, for example, House of Cards, where no form of wickedness is off bounds and no one seems redeemable. Instead, there is something likable about the hapless crew of Sneaky Pete since they are not stealing from you, only from each other in an ongoing round of escapades. And, as I mentioned, this program is a training course for our nation, which also has been conned.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own. He takes no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
His new books, Improving Mental Health; Four Secrets in Plain Sight (2017) and Controversies in Mental Health and the Addictions (2017) are now available. Follow him on Twitter - @askdrlloyd