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How Amazon Took a Good CBS Pilot and Made It Great

Sneaky Pete gets a new life on the streaming service

Giovanni Ribisi stars in the new Amazon pilot Sneaky Pete. Amazon Studios

Transparent's critical acclaim has been both a blessing and a curse for Amazon. While the show's 11 Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe wins have helped legitimize the streaming service as a new home for top-shelf TV, Amazon's other original series don't breathe the same rarefied air.

On Friday, Amazon will try to strike gold again as it unveils its latest series hopefuls. As with its previous pilots, it will ask customers to watch the new shows and provide feedback. Amazon will take that response into account when deciding whether or not to pick them up for full seasons.

While January's pilot season boasted 13 shows (including six kids' pilots), this new round has just two: dramas Sneaky Pete, originally created for CBS, and Casanova. Despite the smaller group, Amazon has found at least one show worthy of sharing space with its best offerings like Transparent and this summer's comedy Catastrophe. 

Sneaky Pete, executive produced by Bryan Cranston and House creator David Shore, stars Giovanni Ribisi as Marius, a con man who's just been released after three years in prison. He's spent those years listening to his cell mate, Pete, yammer on about his idyllic childhood. Finding himself pursued by mobsters who want him dead, Marius decides to assume Pete's identity and hide out with the family who hasn't seen Pete in 20 years, since a falling out with Pete's mother. 

They run a bail bond business ("We make money by knowing who we can trust and who we can't trust," says his grandmother, played by Margo Martindale), and Pete joins on as a skip tracer, hunting down criminals who've jumped bail. He proves to be a natural at the job and also finds himself drawn to a loving family for the first time in his life. 

Ribisi acquits himself nicely as the nimble, conflicted Marius, forced to constantly reinvent himself on the fly. And it's easy to see the kind of show Sneaky Pete would have become on CBS, which shot the pilot and passed on it in May: a solid procedural packed with great actors that would have gone about its business each week without making too many waves or attracting too much attention. 

But in picking Sneaky Pete off CBS' scrap heap, Amazon did something incredibly smart: It added two scenes to the pilot that instantly transformed the show into something far richer, darker and more intriguing than the original CBS version. In doing so, it makes a good pilot into something great, and more importantly, a serviceable show into something that could be marvelous. 

The first added scene involves the introduction of the man who is hunting Pete, a thrilling celebrity cameo that I won't spoil here—even though Amazon does so in the trailer below; watch at your own risk—that instantly ratchets up the show's stakes. That's followed by an equally compelling face-off between Ribisi and Martindale, adding intriguing shades to her character and setting the show down an unexpected path.

While CBS procedurals tend to cast terrific actors and then give them only occasional moments to shine, Amazon's tweaks to Sneaky Pete promise a series that will make full use of the considerable talents of Ribisi, Martindale and Marin Ireland.

The only strike against Pete is its extensive soundtrack use of Eels' "Fresh Blood," a haunting song that served as the theme for HBO's riveting Robert Durst documentary, The Jinx. Once certain songs become so powerfully linked to a specific show (think The Sopranos' "Woke Up This Morning" theme, or Sia's "Breathe Me" from the Six Feet Under finale), they should be off limits for all other series.

Most pilots are DOA after a network passes on them—this year, Sneaky Pete was the only pilot to find a second life with another outlet. But being discarded by CBS is the best thing that could have happened to the show. 

I was less enamored with Amazon's other new pilot, Casanova, which follows the infamous Italian playboy, Giacomo Casanova (played by Diego Luna), from when he escaped a Venice prison in 1757 and fled to Paris to start his life over.

"There is no Casanova—not anymore," he announces early on, claiming that he now has "greater ambitions" than his past pursuits of pleasure. And that could be Casanova's biggest problem: While Luna is bursting with charisma during the flashbacks to Casanova's heyday, he's less engaging as the broken, off-kilter Casanova in the pilot. 

Directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), Casanova is lush and lavish—it was shot in Italy, France and Hungary—but its pilot is more reminiscent of Showtime period costume dramas like The Tudors or The Borgias than the fresher take that Amazon was hoping for. That could change as Casanova falls back into old habits—he encounters plenty of temptation in the early going—and Luna can turn back on the charm, but for now, Sneaky Pete promises a more exciting, engaging journey, and Amazon's better option to add another high-caliber show to its stable. That is until the premiere of The Man in the High Castle, one of Amazon's most promising pilots, which debuts Nov. 20.

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