The Pretender Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    First of all, my apologies to confirmed fans of this series for not having seen Season One. If my comments seem unfair or perhaps even misguided regarding prior context, please remember that I have come to this show completely fresh and, thus, am judging it upon what I have perceived, and felt, during the many hours of viewing this second run. And let me state right now that I enjoyed the show ... but with reservations. And these reservations are of the type that I doubt very much would be reversed even with the benefit of Season One's foundation under my belt.

    “What, I am in the Twilight Zone?”

    Well, that's roughly how I felt at the start of this show. We've got Jarod - the Pretender of the title - on the run from something called the Centre, from which he seems to have escaped, Wolverine-style, back at the beginning of the first season. Being a Pretender means that he has amazing savant-like skills that enable him to learn things very rapidly. Skills such as piloting a plane, assuming different identities or devising ingenious plots and devices, he gains within minutes. Yet, having been snatched from his parents at an early age, and incarcerated in the eminently shady Centre whereupon he was studied, tested and experimented upon until his escape, it seems he has a great deal to learn about the simple things in life, like toys, comic books, Twinkies and Halloween etc, resulting in his worldview being similar to that of a man-child. And again, much like Wolverine, he seems plagued by nightmares and half-memories of his mother, the painful testing he has undergone, and of Sydney, the chief examiner who looked after him throughout his captivity and forged a bond with him that continues to the present. He has discs that look like proto-DVD's upon which experiences and events in his suppressed life have been recorded - but all he wants to do is find out who he really is, what became of his family and why all this has happened to him. Sydney and Jarod remain in contact, Sydney secretly helping the Pretender to stay one step ahead, and allowing him to taunt his pursuers and lead them up the garden path, episode after episode. The season kicks off after what appears to have been a cliff-hanger at the end of the previous run, which has left a seriously sinister nemesis called Mr. Raines badly burned, and a question mark hanging over exactly who fired the bullet that blew up the oxygen tank he had been wearing. Was it Jarod? Or was it another member of the Centre's three main operatives in charge of finding and capturing Jarod? Apparently, all have good motive to have done the deed and the finger of suspicion will be pointed at each of them. Admittedly, it's a good hook. Not having the baggage of the previous series hanging about me, allowed me to enter this complicated world without any preconceptions or expectations - which can be a blessing.

    “You see, sometimes, looking dangerous is enough. And sometimes, it's not.”

    A man with incredible mental abilities and instincts, a true chameleon who can blend into any environment and assume literally any profession, any role with utter conviction, pursued by some secretive Government agency with nefarious plans for these amazing skills sounded, to me, a bit like Cronenberg's Scanners, at first. But as each episode unfolded it became clear that The Pretender was really Quantum Leap in disguise, with every little saga punctuating the bigger, arcing story becoming an self-enclosed tale of righting wrongs, supporting the underdog and dishing out some poetic justice. Jarod, played with birdlike curiosity by the odd-faced Michael T. Weiss, always seems to find himself, albeit in a rather contrived fashion, involved in someone else's dilemma, be it an unsolved murder, blackmail or the exploitation of the vulnerable, and in nobly sorting it out, perhaps ends up learning a little bit more about himself, his confused emotions and his fragmented relationships along the way. Beyond Quantum Leap, it could also be The Incredible Hulk TV show, or even Highway To Heaven with high moral standing and life lessons. It's the mythical stranger wandering in and cleaning up the troubled town, fighting injustice and then heading off into the sunset once more, on his ever-roving quest to find happiness. This sort of ethic can be applied to literally any genre, any time period and utilise any number of the same plot points forever ... and still work. It's time honoured. Though, whereas in the past these wandering heroes were clean, upstanding folk, nowadays, we prefer them haunted, and driven by a desire to mete-out justice to a much greater, and more personal, wrong that has been committed, before they ever have a shot at their own redemption. But, at least, The Pretender often tries to take a slightly different stance to the normal conventions. In fact, Jarod seems to take quite a pleasure in exacting his little bouts of revenge, and the show revealed a cruel and dark streak that I hadn't expected. And this I liked.

    “Enrique, they buried you alive ...”

    But alongside these episodic adventures of righteous comeuppance, are the tangled conspiracies that plague the agents back at the Centre. Season One's established antagonists, headed up by the amazingly short-skirted Miss Parker (played with a delicious ice-cool severity by Andrea Parker), Sydney (the wonderfully-voiced Patrick Bauchau, who is so brilliant as Carnivale's blind seer) and Jon Greis's likeable foil, Broots, are all permitted to run the emotional gauntlet, themselves, as blasts from the past, heartrending revelations and psychologically damaging plot twists bounce them all from pillar to post. Missing fathers return - though the reunions might not be as warm and trusting as you might think - twin brothers turn up and certain characters discover they may have much more in common with others than they may like. The themes of family and of identity are thrashed about and toyed with constantly. Relationships are reinforced or shattered completely, and this season, it seems to me, likes to seriously mess with details that the dedicated follower has taken as Gospel.

    “It would give me great pleasure to perform his autopsy. Before he was dead.”

    Whilst the episodic nature of the show has Jarod assume the roles of characters as diverse as a gigolo, a race driver or a SWAT team member - his “pretends”, as they are known - the arcing storyline actually becomes the dominant force that drives this fast-paced and intriguing narrative. We know he'll solve the mystery and save the day each time, but the shifting plot that surrounds him and his hunters takes on a hugely complex, and quite addictive, quality. This is aided considerably by the arrival at the Centre of two new agents, Mr. Lyle (Desperate Housewives' James Dent) and his butt-kicking femme fatale assistant Brigitte (pronounced Bree -jeet) played with humorously nasty zeal by Pamela Gidley. Well and truly putting the established crew's noses out of joint, these two begin the season as smarmy go-getters, slyly taking over and operating to their own hidden agenda. Yet, just when the office-backstabbing and industrial espionage was starting to become boring, the pair took on altogether more ruthless and violent tendencies. Check out the brutal catfight between Miss Parker and Brigitte and, much later on, when the true evil of Mr. Lyle bursts forth with terrible repercussions. Denton's transition from smooth, oily manipulator to outright psychopath is superbly staged, creating a great and truly disturbing villain. I have to admit that I ended up enjoying this much darker thread of revelations much more than the playful scenarios depicted during Jarod's adventures. The show certainly takes on a far more engrossing dynamic once it has given up some of its secrets, honing its malevolent edge by rubbing salt into many wounds. Which leads me on to the reservations that I have about the show.

    “Before I found myself thumb-less in the desert, I was head rat in the cheese factory.”

    Firstly, a lot of episodes begin with a terribly trite prologue introducing us to Jarod's latest incarnation - ice cream salesman, plastic surgeon etc - that sees him arrive amid lots of people (usually badly acting kids) going “Hi, Jarod,” as though they've known him for quite a while. This all-smiles familiarity angle never rings true to me for a character that is, supposedly, on the run. He never changes his name either, and barely ever his appearance ... so just how hard would it really be to catch this fugitive, despite how clever he is? Also somewhat grating is his affinity to children which, whilst I completely understand its context, never feels convincing and, moreover, usually comes across as a tad condescending. Let me stress that this is not down to Weiss's performance, but rather the children, themselves, delivering sub-par lines and clichéd characterisations. The whole show almost always deals with children in a very manipulative way. Frightening real-life man-child Haley Joel Osment, pre-big time, even arrives come the season's admittedly awesome 2-part finale, Bloodlines, but I've never been a fan of his and still find him wholly overrated. You can definitely see the potential here that marked him out for bigger things, though. Another slight annoyance is Brigitte's accent. Just what is it meant to be? Throughout early episodes she pouts and preens and speaks in a bizarrely bland monotone combination of sophisticated English, something vaguely European and occasionally even a toned-down South African. It may sort of settle down after a few instalments but, until then, it still hangs awkwardly in the ear whenever she speaks. The titles, themselves, are quite embarrassing too, stressing the heroics that Jarod displays in his pretends, the fire-fighter, in particular, being a howlingly naff instant of pseudo-bravery, all set to Rick Patterson's blatant rip-off theme from Hans Zimmer's score for The Rock. But the most sneer-inducing elements come courtesy of the A-Team-style montages employed whenever Jarod gets to work on building some nifty equipment, or staging an elaborate plan - all dreamy soft edits and shot-merging slow-mo. Terribly dated, I'm afraid.

    “You always have a choice.”

    “Tell that to the victims of Flight 105.”

    But the cool elements weigh in pretty heavily, too. I love the crazy old Mr. Raines character, with his ominous recovery gaining momentum with each passing episode, and his continued ability to pull strings even from his Burns Unit bed. He reminded me of a Satanic Richard O'Brien. The twists and turns reveal some fascinating facts, yet cleverly never too much - just enough to answer a mystery or two whilst creating several more in their wake. The different professions that Jarod gets into in the pursuit of justice are joyfully reminiscent of that old kids' TV show, Mr. Benn - each episode, a different costume leading to a themed adventure. If you step back from it for a moment, the whole thing flares itself up as irredeemably ludicrous, yet it manages to hold together through the goofy charisma of its leading man, more than anything else. Weiss portrays Jarod with an often touching vulnerability and a comical presence that makes you instantly warm to him. He has a long face that looks almost plastic and malleable - which, of course, is perfect for a man who is supposed to be a human chameleon. His inquisitiveness of things that he has never encountered before has an odd charm that occasionally recalled the mannerisms of Roddy McDowall's chimp from Planet Of The Apes. And then there is delightful Andrea Parker, of course. Her Miss Parker may be power-suited and authoritarian, but this season gives her plenty of opportunity to face the demons of her past and the tragedy of her own predicament. Those cool put-downs and lightning-bolt threats are forced into submission when her soul is laid bare. A great portrayal of a character I assume was far more one-dimensional in the prior season.

    “Not every picture tells a story.”

    Overall, I found The Pretender Season Two to be an intriguing show. Some episodes are not as much fun as others - in fact many that fall earlier in the season are a little too knowing and emotionally corny to have much resonance. It is not until Jarod makes his Jason Bourne-esque declaration of bringing the war back to the Centre in Past Sim, after he discovers that they've used one of his test simulations for real, that the simple, quick-cure elements take more of a back seat to the mystery and danger of his deeper quest to find his family. But, once on course, the thriller just keeps piling on the pressure. Great hokum, with a strong emotional core, some neat deceits and a well-executed veil of sinister goings-on. This season will certainly please the fans and, perhaps, even garner a few ones.

    The Episodes are as follows:

    Disc One Side A - Back From The Dead Again|Scott Free|Over The Edge|Exposed|Side B - Nip And Tuck|Past Sim|Making Of Part 1

    Disc 2 Side A - Collateral Damage|Hazards|FX|Indy Show|Side B - Gigolo Jarod|Toy Surprise|Making Of Part 2

    Disc Three Side A - A Stand Up Guy|Unforgotten|Bulletproof|Silence|Side B - Crash|Red Rock Jarod plus Commentary|Making Of Part 3

    Disc Four Side A - Stolen|Bank|Side B - Bloodlines Parts 1 and 2 plus Commentary

    The Rundown

    OUT OF
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