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The Pros And Cons Of Sneaky Pete's Third Season

Amazon's con-artist/family drama has always needed more cons. Did Season 3 come through?
  • Giovanni Ribisi returns for a third season of Sneaky Pete (Amazon)
    Giovanni Ribisi returns for a third season of Sneaky Pete (Amazon)

    You've heard it said a million times: the first rule of telling a successful lie is to keep it simple. Don't go too baroque, or add a bunch of details that will only trip you up later. So why doesn't Amazon's Sneaky Pete, a show about a guy who lies for a living, take that advice?

    Sneaky Pete's third season dropped on May 10, and while I looked forward to it, the first two seasons had some problems that made it somewhat less than a prestige watch. It's a professionally made show, handsome to look at, with a good soundtrack, and Lord knows the cast is impressive: Giovanni Ribisi is perfect as Marius Josopovic, an ex-con and current con artist who assumed the identity of his cellmate when he got paroled in S1, the better to hide from Bryan Cranston's talking-villain gangster boss; the Murphy family that thinks he's their own includes Margo Martindale, The Wire's Peter Gerety, and the underrated Marin Ireland; and this season's guest stars include Charlayne Woodard as an art forger, M. Emmet Walsh as a used-car-salesman patriarch, and the late, great Ricky Jay as…well, I won't spoil it, but it's Ricky Jay in a show about cons, which is perfect.

    But Sneaky Pete has tended not to understand that, on a list of its pros and cons, most of its pros are...the cons. Those of us who watch shows like Sneaky Pete and Leverage for the process-y bits -- the exposition about how to age a painting or a bottle of wine; the flashbacks to a big-store con's careful construction -- would prefer that the show not spend quite as much time as it does on Pete's orphaned cousin's stoner-teen angst. But then, that's a problem the show has generally: it's not great at time management. It's conventional wisdom at this point that streaming services have historically been a bit too attached to a 10- or 13-episode order, forcing showrunners and writers' rooms to compensate with filler or over-plotting, and Sneaky Pete has a moment every season -- usually around the seventh-episode mark -- where, because it's got too many cons yoked together with each other, the viewer loses track of who knows what or who's on which side. It doesn't stand in the way of enjoying the show, but a shorter season might cut down on that kind of confusion.

    Another issue with braiding the family's side dramas into each season's main plot is that, after the first time around, the number of secrets this family has from each other, and the frequency (and, not for nothing, flagrancy) with which they lie, stops feeling realistic. It's one thing for Marius to lie all the time -- it's his job, and he's good at it. That the others are still unearthing ancient infidelities and ethical lapses three seasons in, and eating up screentime with tearful confessions, is a little much.

    Which brings to mind another con-game rule of thumb: in a "put-up," a story you tell a mark, a cover identity or what have you, you're supposed to lard it with as much truth as you can so that you can sell it. Something doesn't ring true about people with decades of experience around criminals not knowing how to lie, or how to spot a lie. In the third season, there's also something that doesn't ring true about Marius's primary antagonist, Lizzie (Efrat Dor). She's pretty bratty to Marius given that she can't run the proposed rare-wines con without him, and Marius in turn is pretty tolerant of her mind-games given that he could just walk away -- and has before. Yeah, Lizzie's gorgeous, and yeah, Marius feels guilty for ditching her when a long-ago grift went south, but whether it's a lack of chemistry between the actors or the writing trying to have it both ways with the honor-among-thieves concept, that grain of truth that's supposed to suspend our disbelief isn't there.

    Fortunately, in the third season, the cons are there, and more plentiful this time around. We get to see Marius at work more than we have in the past, conning bank tellers into giving him protected info, creating a distraction with a bachelorette party, and his usual sleight-of-hand card tricks. One of the season-long cons involves the Gardner museum heist, a true-life museum job that in reality remains unsolved (and was the subject of the outstanding Last Seen podcast from WBUR, and a story I myself am obsessed with). It's a pleasant way to spend a rainy weekend. But while Season 3 Sneaky Pete has a better grasp on its strengths than past outings, it's still just a little bit less than the sum of its parts.

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    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: Sneaky Pete, Prime Video, Giovanni Ribisi