Before improbably becoming a mega-star in his fifties, Bryan Cranston was a character actor, and an awfully good one, at that. He understood what the job entailed: find a way to make even the most minor character feel interesting and real, without stealing more focus from the stars than is good for the story in question.
So it’s not surprising that the first TV show Cranston has co-created — and the first series on which he’s had a significant role since Breaking Bad ended — is both a hell of a showcase for an impressive army of character actors, and one that’s about the art of acting, even if the context is a lot sketchier than the days when Cranston was playing Tim Whatley on Seinfeld.
In Sneaky Pete, a new Amazon drama debuting tomorrow (I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season), Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius, a veteran con man coming to the end of a prison stint and looking for a place to lie low while plotting his revenge against Cranston’s Vince, the cop-turned-gangster who cost Marius dearly on his last job. His cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry) has long regaled Marius with stories of an idyllic childhood at his family’s Connecticut farmhouse, and Marius uses those stories and their vague physical resemblance to pose as Pete so he can crash with grandparents Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto (Peter Gerety) and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae), and Carly (Libe Barer), who haven’t seen the real version since he was a kid.
Marius has many physical skills useful to the trade (he’s a master pickpocket, for instance), but his most valuable gift is his ability to lose himself in his latest role, whether it’s something where he has a lot of prep time, or a last-second piece of improvisation. And there’s a similar level of quickness to the impressive extended cast assembled here.
Cranston originally created Sneaky Pete (the title was his childhood nickname) for CBS with House‘s David Shore, and the first episode suggests one of those occasional CBS experiments to push against the boundaries of procedural crime stories. So a lot of time is devoted to Marius assuming Pete’s identity and trying to avoid Vince, but just as much to Marius and Julia figuring out how to catch a bail-jumper. When CBS passed and Amazon picked up the series, Shore was replaced by Graham Yost and several other members of the Justified creative team (who of course have some history with Martindale), and the structure shifted to something more familiar from the last decade of cable drama. The premise itself is basically a less violent Banshee (or a more violent Impastor), while the narrative operates under Murphy’s Law, where it’s just one damn thing after another from both identities causing difficulties for Marius, his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer), his fake family, and his grifter friends, who are played by, among others, Alison Wright (Poor Martha from The Americans), Ben Vereen, Virginia Kull, C.S. Lee, and Karolina Wydra.
That sense of never-ending calamity can be exhausting on many of these shows (see the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy), but Sneaky Pete works because virtually every actor involved is two or three degrees better than required, and every character is written with greater detail and intelligence than the story needs to keep moving forward.