The lengthy “Previously, on Sneaky Pete” montage that begins the Amazon drama’s second season kicks off, as one might expect, with a reminder of its premise: con man Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) gets out of prison and assumes the identity of ex-cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry), laying low with the extended family the real Pete hasn’t seen since he was a kid. After that, though, the montage skips over season one’s main arc — Marius running an elaborate hustle on the gangster who put him in prison, played by the show’s co-creator, Bryan Cranston — in favor of a bunch of story points I’d utterly forgotten in the year-plus the show’s been absent, mostly bits of business involving the trouble Pete’s family got into through no fault of Marius.
This makes sense as season two (which debuts Friday) unfolds, since Cranston has gone back to his 15 other projects (though he remains an executive producer, the show is still run by Graham Yost and a bunch of his team from Justified), and the new episodes are even more committed to Pete’s family than the first season was. Not only do the various subplots about grandma Audrey (Margo Martindale), grandpa Otto (Peter Gerety), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae), and Carly (Libe Barer) continue, but the new arc involves Marius’ assumed identity bringing him trouble from the crooks the real Pete allegedly robbed before he and Marius became cellmates.
It is, once again, a hydra story, as Marius and his fake family keep chopping the heads off of one problem, only to find two new ones cropping up in its place. Half the current dramas on cable and streaming operate along a similar principle, but Sneaky Pete season one distinguished itself from so many of the others with a bunch of smart casting and writing choices. Yost and company filled every role they could with the most overqualified actor available — none more than Cranston himself, playing a big bad in someone else’s show in order to salvage the series after CBS passed on it a few years back — which quickly fleshed out a lot of plot functionary roles into something more colorful. The writers also let most of the characters be smart enough to stay two steps ahead of the plot, where many similar One Goddamn Thing After Another shows keep the story going by making their characters too dumb to predict what the audience can easily see coming. And the sting that Marius and his crew ran on Cranston’s Vince was twisty and fun in exactly the way a story about a con man requires.
Season two, unfortunately, falls behind the first in all those areas. Cranston’s gone, and the new archvillain is Luka Delchev, a vicious Montenegrin crook played, eventually, by John Ales (Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll), who is good but is, unsurprisingly, not Bryan Cranston. In the early going, his interests are represented by a pair of goons who run a business solving mysteries for bad guys who understandably can’t go to the cops, played by Desmond Harrington (Quinn from Dexter) and Joseph Lyle Taylor (who was Martindale’s eldest son on Justified). They’re also fine, but don’t add quite the same spark to the material that several of last year’s recurring players like Michael O’Keefe and Virginia Kull added. A few fun season one faces return here and there, notably Alison Wright as Marius’ ever-reliable, ever-exasperated partner Marjorie, but the only newcomer to match them is Jane Adams as Pete’s mother Maggie, who is either a psychic, a con artist herself, or both. Adams’ familiar nervous energy makes an outstanding oil-and-water combination with what Ribisi is doing as the perpetually cool and calculating Marius, and scenes where the two of them have to pretend to be mother and son are often the highlights of season two.
But the gamesmanship between Marius and Luka’s people isn’t as bouncy as what we got last time, even if a lot of the individual cons are a pleasure to watch unfold. Much more frustrating, though, are all the non-Marius parts, and boy are there a lot of them. The season essentially turns into two separate shows that occasionally intersect: the con man drama about Marius, and the escalating series of calamities confronting Audrey and the rest of the family — which are themselves largely separate from one another. And despite a lot of strong performers on that side, Sneaky Pete grinds to a halt whenever the action shifts away from Marius and to, say, Otto and his buddy Sam (Jay O. Sanders) trying to find and move a dead hitman’s car (a challenge to which the season devotes a shocking amount of time), or Taylor working to conceal an affair with the wife of the family’s biggest rival in the local bail bonds trade, or Julia learning how to launder money(*) for the local meth kingpin to forgive a debt. On the brief occasions when one of them overlaps with what Marius is up to, the supporting players spring to life — Ireland is so good at the con artist stuff whenever Julia’s asked to pitch in and help her “cousin” out of a jam, it’s a shame she wasn’t cast in that half of the show to begin with — but then everything goes back to a series of MacGuffins, where each problem exists only to set up the next one, and the next one, and the next one, none of it mattering except to keep the increasingly hollow story moving forward.
(*) Anton Chekhov’s famous statement about how any play that puts a gun on the stage in the first act must fire it by the third has been applied by critics like me to almost any inevitable or heavily foreshadowed plot element. (Remember Chekhov’s Ricin on Cranston’s previous TV show?) But I think we need a separate nomenclature to refer to the specific instance of a huge amount of illicit cash that’s being hidden somewhere innocuous, and that will of course go missing at the exact moment a character needs it most. Cranston’s previous show also had one of those, and from the instant Julia stores some of the drug dealer’s money in one of her daughter’s backpacks, you will know exactly what’s coming.
When Otto’s confronted about why he hired the dead hitman to try to kill him in the first place, he shrugs and — in a line that sums up a lot of the decision making in the season — says, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The two halves of the show mostly merge by the end, and there are some choice scenes in the middle when Maggie first returns to the homestead — it’s one of the few times all season when the great Martindale doesn’t seem underused — but the family stories are so extraneous, it feels like the series would have been better off abandoning its premise and just following Marius to a new place where he could run a different con, using Pete’s name or not.
That Yost and company were able to make the first season as much fun as it was was itself something of a miracle, given that they were revamping the show on the fly from a version CBS didn’t want, with the same cast, but structured more as a bounty hunter procedural where Julia taught Marius the family business. (If you know this backstory, it’s funny that a key plot point at the start of the season spins out of the pilot’s bounty hunter plot, which David Shore wrote before moving on to The Good Doctor.) Had Yost been creating a show from scratch, he might not have made the family such a key piece of the foundation, nor set up some of the other plots from that transitional phase early in season one that are somehow still going in this version of what the series has mostly become. He and his team are inventive enough to make some of this work despite itself — Bridgeport, CT turns out to have a Chasidic Jewish car theft ring, for instance — but the season is much more of a chore to get through, which Sneaky Pete very much wasn’t a year ago.
As Maggie puts it while considering what it must be like to be Marius, adjusting himself to the temperature of each room and changing his identity and plans accordingly, “Must be exhausting.” A lot of this season is exactly that.