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Review: The delicious ‘Sneaky Pete’ has cheats, liars and a familiar thug

From left to right: Giovanni Ribisi as Marius/Pete and Shane McRae as Taylor Bowman in the Amazon Prime Video series "Sneaky Pete."
(Eric Liebowitz / Amazon Prime Video)

How do you return to series television after playing the role of a lifetime?

If you’re Bryan Cranston, through a side door … and with as little fanfare as possible.

The actor, who won four Primetime Emmy awards for his portrayal of Walter White, America’s notorious science teacher turned meth king in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” now does the bulk of his work behind the camera as the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the Amazon Prime series “Sneaky Pete.”

The 10-episode drama, out in its entirety Friday (the pilot premiered last September), follows a highly intelligent, working-class white man who finds his calling outside the law. Sound familiar?

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But this time around, the starring role belongs to Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Marius, a con man who’s almost done serving time at a New York prison for his misdeeds. But freedom means facing the cold-blooded, ex-cop turned thug Vince (Cranston) whom he scammed out of a fortune before ending up in the slammer.

As Marius concocts a plan of survival, the nonstop prattle of his cellmate, Pete (Ethan Embry), gives him an idea. Pete talks incessantly about his idyllic childhood raised by his grandparents on a farm outside Bridgeport, Conn., though it’s been 20 years since he’s seen them. Marius isn’t a dead ringer for Pete, but he’s close enough.

Marius assumes Pete’s identity upon his release from prison, fleeing to the safety of the unsuspecting “grandparents” Audrey and Otto (Margo Martindale and Peter Gerety) who accept him back into their lives: They need help running their bail-bond business, and sneaky Pete is happy to oblige.

But since Vince is holding Marius’ younger brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) in the city as collateral, Marius must find a way to pay the ex-cop back, all while conning Pete’s family, who include his “cousins” Julia (Marin Ireland) and her brother Taylor (Shane McRae).

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The carefully crafted labyrinth of lies, swindles and half-truths threaten to implode at any minute, and it’s that suspense and tension — along with the absurd situations that Marius finds himself in — that make “Sneaky Pete” such a smart, riveting and often tense ride through a complicated web of family, crime and everything that should (but doesn’t) separate the two.

Ribisi is a convincing con man: charming, cunning and able to spin multiple scams like plates. But grandma Audrey has some hidden truths of her own, and the interplay between the two — paranoid but polite exchanges, the subtle need to outsmart each other — is one of the highlights here.

Another stand-out is newcomer Libe Barer as Carly, the granddaughter of Audrey. A potential grifter in the making, the shoplifting teen is, like everyone else, in the dark about Pete’s real identity.

But Carly senses a kindred spirit in her recently arrived “uncle.” “Teach me,” she says, after lifting money out of his wallet, only to find he stole it back from her. “I just did,” he says. “The lesson was don’t steal from me.”

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Cranston co-created “Sneaky Pete” with David Shore (“House,” “Battle Creek”), and his fellow executive producer is Graham Yost (“Justified,” “The Americans”). All three are also involved in the writing of the show.

“Sneaky Pete” originally was ordered by CBS in late 2014, but by the following spring, the network declined to pick up the series. A bidding war ensued .

In “Sneaky Pete,” Cranston doesn’t appear all that often, but when he does, we’re reminded of how terrifyingly calculated his characters can be. Vince uses his old skills as a NYC cop to perfect his new calling in the world of high-end crime. His obsession with getting Marius isn’t as much about getting the money back that he’s owed as it is about destroying the man who once humiliated him. His revenge involves meticulous plotting as well as bolt cutters as a means of torture.

Cranston’s extensive acting range has been demonstrated, from the wacky father in “Malcolm in the Middle” to his Oscar-nominated role as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his Tony Award-winning turn as President Johnson in the play “All the Way.” (He scored an Emmy nomination in the HBO adaptation of the play.)

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That power through versatility can be felt throughout “Sneaky Pete,” even when Cranston isn’t on-screen. His penchant for dark characters with above average intelligence informs scenes in NYC crime dens, where high-stakes gamblers drink even higher-end scotch, while his ability to capture the most mundane aspects of family life is apparent at the kitchen table in rural Connecticut, where kids eat waffles as their parents argue about how to pay the mortgage.

Cranston’s return to series TV is brilliant, understated and mostly behind the scenes. How very Walter White.

‘Sneaky Pete’

Where: Amazon

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When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

Twitter: @lorraineali

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