Fox // 1996 // 1078 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // May 18th, 2005
Annie: So, you're a doctor and a lawyer?
Jarod: And I'm working on Indian chief.
The Pretender was a rare creation in television -- a smart and complicated show that posed more questions than it ever answered. It ran for four seasons on NBC, and then was picked up for syndication by TNT. The re-airings of the series proved so popular that two made-for-television movies were produced to continue the story. The narrative, though, was never closed; the creators promise a planned third movie will answer all the lingering questions floating in the ether about this cult hit. It's clear the makers of the show hope The Pretender: The Complete First Season will revive interest in it, and lead to that final installment being made. Will it spark a miraculous revival (like Family Guy), or will it just be a souvenir for fans of a beloved and canceled show (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer)?
Jarod (Michael T. Weiss, Days of Our Lives, Jeffrey) can be anybody but himself. He can become anything merely by observing and reading. Jarod is a special form of genius called a "pretender," who was raised in captivity by a semi-evil corporation known as The Centre. They created the "pretenders" to be human computers who could deal in hard data and infuse their findings with real emotions. But something went wrong. All the subjects became sociopathic and unpredictable. The Centre's human computers began to ask hard questions about who they were, where they came from, and why they were working on military projects and assassination plots. Jarod escaped. The series chronicles his attempts to find out who he is, all the while pursued by a team of Centre agents and doctors who want him back.
The Pretender: The Complete First Season is the origin of the storyline, setting Jarod free in the world to assume his many identities. In every episode he takes on a different occupation (lawyer, doctor, pilot, even hitman) to help people who were somehow wronged, and also to investigate his mysterious past. The set also introduces us to his pursuers: Miss Parker (Andrea Parker, JAG)a head of security, Sydney (Patrick Bauchau, Ray) his mentor and psychiatrist, and Broots (Jon Gries, Napoleon Dynamite), a computer expert.
The Pretender The Complete First Season is an impressive set of shows for a first season. Sure, there are many tweaks you can see happening as the show progresses. But really, the series sprang out of its creators' heads and onto the glass teat of television fully-formed and knowing where it was going. On one of the commentaries for the pilot, the creators claim the show tested very high, and was met with more approval than long-time hits like ER. There are many reasons the show started off so strong, not the least of which was a great cast.
Michael T. Weiss was the only choice for the role of Jarod (they never even auditioned anybody else), and he seems to be born to play the role. Weiss can play light and dark simultaneously, which became the key to the show and the lead character. Jarod has to be ultra-smart, driven by demons, and completely innocent all at the same time. He begins a vigilante crusade to help people who were beaten down or victimized by the system, and his modus operandi involves punishing wrong-doers by making them suffer in the same way their victims did. If someone burned down a building that killed someone, you can bet that in the climax they will be trapped in an inferno set by Jarod. It can get pretty gruesome, and it was certainly disturbing to see Jarod flip from "caring and sweet" to "sudden murderous rage." 'Course he is the good guy, and he always seems to merely almost kill someone before releasing them to the proper authorities. Weiss is a classic example of an actor using his greatest weakness as his strength in his portrayal of Jarod. He's a good-looking guy with spooky eyes and a deep unmistakable voice, but he's always had problems playing extreme emotions. The brilliant way he gets around this in The Pretender is to play Jarod as a bubbling pot of hidden emotions that rarely erupts. It's a powerful performance, nuanced with a lot of subtlety.
Not quite as subtle is Andrea Parker playing the "toughest man on the show," Miss Parker. The actress was cast shortly after she stated "This script has my name all over it!" She appears in the first scene of the first episode in a black Emma Peel catsuit, and, when warned her cigarette is dangerous because "the materials are explosive," she replies with a curt, angry, "So am I!" The show's creators admit she's paying homage to screen sirens like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford with her chain-smoking and zingy one liners. Miss Parker is built on moxie and gravity-defying short skirts. (Andrea Parker's background as a professional dancer helps make that work.) Thankfully, The Pretender is smart enough to give her many dimensions and an interesting backstory that allows the character to quickly become more than one note. Jarod is not the only one with a mysterious past -- Miss Parker has her own answers to find.
In addition to our hero and villain, there are two other interesting pursuers of Jarod. Adding a paternal element to the show is Patrick Bauchau's Sydney. Bauchau, from Brussels, is a well-known international star who adds a lot of pathos to the role. He plays a psychiatrist who can't seem to decide whether he wants to help capture Jarod or ensure he remains free. Sydney has many secrets as well, and the character is a combination of good-natured humor and well-hidden angst. Rounding out the core cast is John Gries, who plays Broots. Gries is a veteran character actor with over forty feature films under his belt, and came on to The Pretender as a guest star who never quite left. He provides Miss Parker and Sydney with the technology they need to pursue Jarod.
The Pretender is a smart show that never talks down to its audience. Clues are never of the hitting-you-over-the-head or obvious varieties, and some sequences are downright confusing, with little explanation given. The backstories are convoluted enough to make even X-Files veterans wonder where the truth is. The series relies on some impressive visuals, and frequent montages set to jazz music help create a hyper-reality. It is very stylized, and as dark as it sounds, is decidedly light in many ways. I wouldn't call it noir -- its tone is more of a midnight blue, as opposed to a true black. It's nice to see a show that creates an effective environment for a cast that's game enough to play in it.
The Pretender: The Complete First Season presents all 21 episodes, and throws in a few extras to make revisiting the series worth your while. Amazingly, they have crammed the whole season onto two double-sided discs (flipper warning for all of you with carousels), so Fox has produced a slim package that barely takes up more room than a single movie. There are three "making of" featurettes scattered throughout the collection. Unfortunately these shorts include spoilers, so newbies will want to save them until after they have seen all the episodes. There is also a collection of television spots that announced the series premiere. Two commentaries are provided on the pilot and finale. The finale commentary is more insightful and lively, thanks to the presence of the creators, the director, and actor Jon Gries. The pilot only has the two creators, who repeat information in the superior later track.
The DVD's technical quality is a little off. The video transfer is sharp, but it suffers from being too sharp for its own good. On smaller televisions nobody will notice the extreme edge enhancement, but anybody sporting a twenty-seven inch or bigger screen will see it all over the image. Grain seems to pop up a lot in dark scenes, and there is a ton of shimmering and pixelation (commonly known as aliasing) whenever plaids or crooked lines show up. On the whole it is not a bad transfer, but it's not a pristine effort by any stretch. The cinematography was great even with the budget constraints of a first season, and it's a shame a better job wasn't done in the translation to DVD. The audio presentation fares better. Dialogue is clear, and there is a nice use of surrounds even in the alternate language tracks. The bass rattles a little too often, but I find this a common element in TV from the '90s.
The Pretender started off as a serial, with a definite "let's pretend we're something this week" formula. There is a pattern to the episodes found on The Pretender: The Complete First Season that becomes repetitive. Jarod's new occupation is set up, he meets someone else who can help, we see some Centre activities, he punishes the wrong-doer, and the pursuers just miss him as he is off to the next role. Watching the DVDs in one marathon session is a test of endurance; you quickly realize each show is exactly the same as the one before it. Only when the serial turns into more of a soap opera, when the backstory comes to the foreground, does The Prentender lend itself to non-stop viewing.
The X-Files did all of this government/corporation conspiracy better, and The Fugitive obviously created the "man on the run" scenario. Jarod's ability to "pretend" reminds me a lot of Quantum Leap without the sci-fi trappings. Some people are going to cry foul that The Pretender is merely a merging of those superior series. I can see their point. But it does have enough smarts to know it is paying homage to both shows, and is deft enough to admit it. Nobody should take it all that seriously -- The Pretender knows it is a light version of darker shows. It's still pulpy fun entertainment, but nobody in their right mind could call it a ground-breaking original idea.
Most contributors to the "Jump the Shark" website (www.jumptheshark.com) say The Pretender never got bad. It still has a legion of fans who are campaigning to finance that third movie, which would wrap up the hanging threads. Some sites are even raising money through fan donations. If The Pretender: The Complete First Season sells well enough, then maybe the movie will finally be made. There are certainly a lot of fans who have waited quite a while for this American release. (Oddly, the entire series has already been released in France.)
Hopefully this set will introduce people to this smart show with a solid cast. Too often smart television disappears quickly, and that was certainly the case with The Pretender. I can forgive its pastiche of other series, because in the end it developed a story that was serpentine and intriguing. It's definitely a show worth checking out on DVD.
The Pretender is guilty of developing a cult of rabid fans, who should be pleased that Fox is finally releasing the series in America. They've provided a solid package that should keep die-hard fans happy and serve as a nice introduction for new viewers. You won't have to pretend to like the show -- it's definitely worth a look if you are unfamiliar with it. Case adjourned!
Now I have to get out of these robes, and go pretend to be a skydiving instructor before Miss Parker finds me...
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 1078 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Three "Making Of" Featurettes
* Commentary on Pilot by Series Creators Craig W. Van Sickle and Steven Long Mitchell
* Commentary on Finale by Series Creators Craig W. Van Sickle and Steven Long Mitchell, Director Fred Keller and Actor John Gries
* TV Spots
* Online Petition to Make Third Pretender Movie
* Fan Site with Season and Episode Guides
* Fan Site -- Pretender Worldwide Headquarters
* Episode Guide in English and German
* FAQ on the Series -- MAJOR SPOILERS!