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Amazon pilot episode 'Sneaky Pete' spins sneaky lies to win your vote

Produced by Bryan Cranston and starring Giovanni Ribisi, this pilot episode could lead to a full series. Here's our review.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
2 min read

In "Sneaky Pete", a con man played by Giovanni Ribisi (front) takes on the identity of his cell mate Pete, played by Ethan Embry (behind). Jeff Neumann/Amazon

Meet Pete. Pete is the star of Amazon's "Sneaky Pete"...except he isn't.

The pilot episode of "Sneaky Pete" is now available to watch on Amazon, in the hope of winning your votes so Amazon is persuaded to make it into a full series. The show stars Giovanni Ribisi as a guy who isn't Pete, but is only pretending to be Pete so he can avoid gangsters by holing up with Pete's family. Got it? Our dubious hero pulls off this this devious ruse thanks to his shady skills as a quick-thinking confidence trickster, which also come in handy when he gets involved with Pete's family business: bounty hunting.

The identity-swapping lead character spinning out a lie reminded me of "Banshee", but with far less people getting their faces punched off. Instead, our hero relies on his wits. Ribisi is endearingly twitchy, spotting tiny details and spinning lies around them like a sort of scumbag Sherlock. He's a weasel and a self-professed coward, but there's something compelling about watching someone dancing on a high wire and always a hairbreadth from falling.

The pilot episode does its job, setting up possible conflicts that could unfold as the story continues. There's the mystery schism that estranged Pete's mother from his family. There's Pete's old best friend who is now a cop. There's the small problem of the vicious gangster to whom Pete-not-Pete owes a lot of money. And then there's the family bail bonds business, offering a life of sneaking around and playing people, for which Pete-not-Pete shows a devious affinity.

The fugitive-hunting bail bonds aspect provides the narrative thrust of the pilot, but it's here that the show seems to reveal its roots as a network TV program. Series that have been developed for binge-watching on streaming services like Amazon Instant Video or Netflix tend to favour ongoing plot lines over the artificial-feeling and formulaic villain-of-the-week format you see in shows broadcast once a week, so I hope if it does get picked up, "Sneaky Pete" avoids that kind of episodic formula.

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The other problem is that the family our hero weasels into isn't immediately very interesting. The family dynamic is pretty vanilla compared with, say, the simmering resentment and seething dysfunction of the Rayburn clan at the heart of the Netflix original show "Bloodlines". As Pete's cousin, Malin Ireland in particular is dismally limp. But character actress Margo Martindale gives a tantalising hint of the hidden matriarchal steel that made her so formidable in "Justified".

Pilot episodes of "Casanova" and "Sneaky Pete" are available on Amazon for anyone to watch and give feedback about. To watch other movies and TV shows on Amazon Instant Video, you need an Amazon Prime subscription. That includes access to music and e-books, as well as faster delivery on products bought from Amazon. It costs £79 in the UK or $99 in the US.