The Pretender (TV Series, 1996-2000)

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It could be a great drinking game.

The Long Version: Imagine a TV show that's a cross between McGyver and The Littlest Hobo, produced during the apogee of The X-Files, and what you get is The Pretender.

And really, the review could end right now. One sentence, and that's it.

The Pretender ran for four seasons, and for at least two of them it wasn't clear if it would be continued. Once it was cancelled, there were four movies planned to finish out the story, but only two were made. So the show has never really had a proper wrap-up, and as the viewer you should feel free to stop watching it at any time. It's never going to make more sense, loose ends are never going to be resolved. Similarly, if you want to stop reading, I'll completely understand.

"The Center" in Blue Cove, Delaware
aka the R.C. Harris water filtration plant, in Toronto, Canada

The premise of the show is that there's a phenomenally brilliant man who can learn just about any skill or ability from the meagrest of sources, and he has escaped from a sinister organization called "The Center" and is now skipping from place to place, helping people in need while trying to find his family. All the while he needs to stay ahead of a gun-toting sexy villainess and her awkward IT guy while keeping in touch with his father-figure caring psychiatrist captor. Sounds like a load of horse-pucky right off the bat, even before the conspiracies break out and characters start their not-really-dead reappearing acts in the second season.

Suspension of disbelief is an important element of The Pretender. For example, we have to accept that someone who can take on any identity he desires still can't figure out how to answer to a different first name. But the character of Jarod was actually inspired by a real person who really was able to fool many people in a diversity of careers, including performing major surgery after reading about the procedure from a textbook. The Center is a think-tank styled after a shady version of the RAND Corporation, but given what's been written down in memos recently, maybe it's not so far-fetched either.

The high point of Season 2, if not the whole series:
introducing Mr. Lyle.

All told The Pretender is a good show, but one that must be viewed in the spirit of the times. In the TV era of I Want To Believe and The Truth Is Out There, it was all about conspiracies and cover-ups done by secretive organizations. Instead of four different flavours of CSI, we had psychic profilers, Y2K, and Chronicles of the Paranormal. Having a show on the air that was about someone relentlessly doing good - even if it was by burying people alive or setting them up for vivisection - was a refreshing change. There are also ongoing touches of humour and running jokes that made for good entertainment. I've never felt that the show takes itself too seriously.

But one word of warning for people who buy or rent the DVD: marathon viewing sessions really emphasize the formula and repetitiveness of the show. Michael T. Weiss could probably beat Keanu Reeves in a fewest-expressions contest, and certain catch-phrases turn into a caricature. After all, you have watched a whole DVD in one sitting before, didn't you?

Didn't you?!



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