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.
Cranston (who also directed an episode) is of course wildly overqualified to be a drama big bad in 2017 — and he appears at least once in every episode, and often has meaty scenes — yet he never plays Vince as a Very Special Guest Star, never tries to overpower Ribisi or Drayer or anyone else with whom he shares a scene. He makes choices about the accent (a splash of Noo Yawk, but not too much) and how Vince moves physically (Cranston is great with props, like the playing cards with which Vince makes the bulk of his money), and simply lets him be a character who lives in the show’s world. There are echoes of Breaking Bad itself — among the season’s highlights is an episode four scene where Cranston gets to deliver his own version of Mike Ehrmantraut’s half-measures speech, and there are a few corpses to be disposed of, not to mention some troublemaking meth dealers — but it’s never Walter White walking into a room, or really even Bryan Cranston; it’s this guy, in this story.
Nearly everyone involved throws themselves into their parts with similar enthusiasm and humility, and are rewarded in turn with something fun and unexpected to play, whether Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Marius’ parole officer, a motivational type who calls himself Mr. Success; Justified alum Jacob Pitts as Julia’s ex, a slick local lawyer; or Michael O’Keefe as a crooked cop on Vince’s payroll, who has his own vendetta against Marius. Again and again, both the regular actors and the guest stars give moments an extra bit of emotion (the way Gerety’s voice cracks when he’s expressing his love for his family at a particularly dire moment for Otto) or energy (the way that Kull’s character, who has gone straight with a husband and daughter, can’t resist enjoying herself as she temporarily unretires to help Marius), and they almost never overdo anything. The dirty cop could so easily be a caricature, but O’Keefe has a scene where he threatens Carly that’s chilling because of how matter-of-fact and human the guy seems in that moment.
And where Justified could at times fall victim to overplotting, Yost, Fred Golan, and others use the abundance of strong actors and characters here to their advantage, taking inherently dramatic or suspenseful scenarios and making them tauter and/or more fun by throwing in just one more person, one more problem, and letting almost everyone be smarter than you expect them to be.
Like most serialized shows of this type, the second half of the season is more fun than the expository first, and there are occasional storytelling leaps you just have to go with. One seemingly innocuous character improbably turns out to be a villain in the later episodes, for instance, but they add so much spice to the story at that point that it’s forgivable.
Eventually, everyone turns out to have so many secrets and hidden agendas that it might feel too convenient for a veteran con man like Marius to have wound up in the middle of this family. But if you look at Sneaky Pete as an excuse for Cranston, Yost, and company to let a small army of their actor friends come in and play — an actors’ workshop about a more criminal version of the profession — then all is well. It’s not fancy, and it’s not new, but like Cranston whenever he would pop up on someone else’s show in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s better and more satisfying than is needed, or expected.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com