Monday, October 1, 2018

REVIEW: The Pretender, The Complete First Season (live action TV series)

The Pretender is a drama/mystery series with what could be viewed as SFF elements, depending on your feelings about the main character's abilities. I own this on DVD.


Jarod is a Pretender, someone with the ability to become anyone he wishes to be. With a few days or weeks of preparation, he's able to become a surgeon, a cop, a pilot, and more. When Jarod was just a child, he was taken from his parents and kept at the Centre, where he was forced to do various simulations under the direction of Sydney, a psychiatrist. The Centre funds its activities by selling the results of its simulations to various governments and individuals.

At the start of this season, Jarod has long since escaped the Centre and is currently on the run, trying to find out as much as he can about his past and his parents, who, contrary to what he was always told, may still be alive. Because the Centre is Jarod's primary link to his past and because Sydney is something like a surrogate parent to him, Jarod keeps in touch, playing a game of cat and mouse with one of the Centre's operatives, Miss Parker, and her team.

A classic Pretender episode generally has Miss Parker and Sydney finding Jarod's previous location just a little too late and combing it for clues as to his current whereabouts. Meanwhile, Jarod is at some new location, pretending to be someone in a particular field (doctor, cop, lawyer, EMS driver, etc.) while investigating some sort of local injustice. He always escapes just before Miss Parker is able to find and apprehend him, and he generally leaves behind clues or a message for Miss Parker or Sydney, possibly involving whatever children's toy he played with in the episode (silly putty, barrel of monkeys, Rubik's cube, fake dog poop, etc.). In some episodes, aspects of this structure are either done away with or pushed into the background so that the overarching storyline of Jarod, Sydney, and/or Miss Parker's past can be given a bit of screentime.

In this season, Jarod pretends to be a lawyer, a cop, a test pilot, a virologist, a coroner, a sky diving instructor, a fire fighter, a bomb squad member, a prison guard, a naval officer, a former Army Ranger turned search-and-rescue volunteer, a TV news cameraman, an EMS driver, and a hitman. And possibly a few other things I'm forgetting.

I wouldn't say that I used to love this show, but I really enjoyed watching it when it was on, which seemed to be a lot. I don't know that I watched it in order, and I'm almost certain there were episodes I missed - the last episode (couple episodes?) of this season didn't ring a bell for me at all, for example.

I watched this series from a SFF perspective, because if you try to view it as a contemporary adventure drama it's pretty ridiculous. I mean, yes, Jarod usually spends a good deal of time studying for whatever role he plans on assuming next, but no matter how much of a genius he is, it wouldn't be that easy to pick up, say, the skills necessary to perform surgery on someone. If you can suspend your sense of disbelief enough, Michael T. Weiss is generally very appealing as Jarod. There were only a few times I cringed a bit. The episode where Jarod participated in a search and rescue and ended up losing his virginity was one of those.

Jarod is a do-gooder who is occasionally terrifyingly dangerous. I was never quite sure if viewers were supposed to interpret him as both good and vaguely disturbing, or if it was just me. For example, at one point Jarod trapped a virologist and made him think he'd been infected with a terrible disease. In order to do this, Jarod had to rig up an actual lab where diseases were studied. Viewers were supposed to assume that Jarod had things 100% under control and that there was no chance the guy could actually get infected with anything, but the scene struck me as being pretty dark.

The same was true of a scene in another episode, in which Jarod deliberately barely ejected a test pilot before he would have crashed. And then there was the episode where he poisoned a woman and made her think she was going to be autopsied while still alive. Jarod always saved this behavior for the truly terrible people who were the episodes' villains, but it still struck me as a little horrifying.

Nowadays it's common for TV series to have overarching storylines with episodes that must be viewed in order. I'm pretty sure this wasn't always true back when The Pretender was on the air. The series did take a stab at a few overarching storylines - Miss Parker's mother's death, the fate of Jarod's parents, Sydney's brother, and the mystery of SL-27 - and for the most part all of this was worked in fairly well.

Even so, the series had to make room for folks who weren't able to catch every episode, and it showed. Characters popped up out of nowhere that should have been important enough to get some prior mention, and then proceeded to disappear when the episode was over. For example, late in the season viewers learned that Jarod actually had a friend at the Centre, a boy named Kyle. Kyle had never previous been mentioned, and I'll be keeping an eye out to see if he's ever mentioned again. If I remember right, this sort of thing became even more noticeable in later seasons.

Complaints aside, I still enjoyed rewatching this. Jarod has some satisfying anti-hero tendencies without being nearly as dark as Dexter (the serial killer who kills people the law can't touch), and I forgot how much I enjoyed Andrea Parker as Miss Parker. Initially, she seemed like an ice cold workaholic with absolutely no soft side. Eventually it became clear that at least some of her behavior was a facade designed to hide the fact that part of her was still an emotionally starved little girl who just wanted to be loved. And Patrick Bauchau was excellent as Sydney, the psychiatrist still bound to the Centre but secretly helping Jarod whenever he could.

While the overarching storylines interested me, I also liked finding out what kind of job Jarod was going to do in each episode, what children's toy he'd briefly become obsessed with, and what he planned to do to mess with Miss Parker this time. Some episodes worked better for me than others, but it was usually at least passable TV, made better by Michael T. Weiss's general likeability.

  • Commentary for a few episodes, including the series pilot
  • Multi-part "making of" featurette
  • TV spots

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