Snide Allusion to the Television Critics Association No. 56: Being a “pretend” television writer may not bring all the perks afforded to “real” TV critics, but I’ve got this going for me: exclusive network preview tapes of new shows weeks before they air!
I take my shallow little victories where I can get ’em, OK?
On the upside, after I’ve convinced network publicists that what I do is relatively legit, most of the advance VHS tapes of yet-to-air programs I receive are free of commercials and those stupid broadcast logo “bugs” in the corner of the screen. On the downside, I occasionally get unfinished product—shows that are in production up until the last minute sometimes have to send out “not-for-review” tapes with incomplete scenes, dialogue, music and special effects. Because the glitches are minor and TV critics are generally weasels, no one ever pays attention to the “not-for-review” caveat.
Never in all my years of TV semi-journalism, however, have I run across something as sketchy and half-baked as the preview tape for TNT’s The Pretender 2001 movie. When the cliffhanger-resolving cable capper to the canceled NBC ’96-’00 sci-fi series airs next week (Monday, Jan. 22, 6 and 8 p.m.), it’ll be the real deal. What I’ve got in my VCR as of this writing is anything but. Between the monotone, stand-in dude dialogue plugs (even for female characters), Napsterrific soundtrack and hand-scrawled film effects, it’s more like Mystery Science Theater 3000 than a big-budget TNT epic.
Mind you, I’m a longtime Pretender fan, so the spiffy packaging and elaborate press kit from TNT instantly spiked my Pretender 2001 hopes. A full eight months after NBC pulled the plug on one of the most intelligently written and addictive shows ever to get its ratings ass kicked regularly by the likes of Walker, Texas Ranger, we’re finally going to get some TV closure. “We” being myself and the thousands of fans who bombarded NBC, producers at Twentieth Century Fox and, finally, TNT, with e-mails to “save The Pretender!” Not nearly as many Internet activists rallied for The Pretender as for the just-resurrected La Femme Nikita, but then again, Michael T. Weiss is no Peta Wilson, no matter how much eyeliner he uses.
TNT has put more promotional muscle behind The Pretender 2001 than NBC did during the series’ entire four-year run, even going so far as to sacrifice a night of WCW Monday Nitro rasslin’ for the movie and nine-episode “Countdown to The Pretender Marathon” beginning at 9 a.m. and leading into the 6 p.m. movie premiere. The countdown is a refresher on the final season of the series, but the two-hour Pretender 2001 wastes scant minutes recapping that and the entire premise of the show for newbies. Yes, even with Pretender reruns now in heavy syndication and on TNT every day, there are still some newbies out there. Whaddya got, jobs and lives or something?
Pretender 101: Child genius Jarod (Weiss) is taken from his parents in the early ’60s by The Centre, a deep-pockets think tank that sells ideas—mostly of the evil, killin’ variety—to the highest global bidders. Under the care of company psychiatrist Sydney (Patrick Bauchau), Jarod is isolated from the world as he uses his computer-like gray matter to devise concepts he believes will be used to help people. Surprise: The Centre takes all his ideas and modifies them into the evil, killin’ variety. At the age of 30, Jarod finally decides he’s tired of living like a hamster and escapes into the world he’s never known—like a grad student, but with useful skills.
Once out, Jarod helps Downtrodden Good People on a weekly basis, using his brainiac abilities to “pretend” to be anyone and anything—a doctor, a cop, a racecar driver, an FBI agent, a male gigolo (!), you name it, while staying one step ahead of The Centre. Jarod’s a good-natured sort, but has a psychotic streak that surfaces at the end of nearly every episode, where he’s inevitably hanging that week’s Designated Bad Guy out a window or over a vat of acid and haranguing him about the nasty things he did to that week’s Designated Victim. Jarod also seems to be wearing the aforementioned eyeliner at all times, but maybe that’s just me.
Simplistic morality plays dropped in the middle of a thickly woven plot, however, do not a cool series make. This is where The Centre’s Miss Parker (Andrea Parker, coincidentally) comes in. Possibly the sexiest TV ball-breaker ever, Miss Parker’s icy focus and sleek ’n’ short wardrobe have made her as popular as the Pretender himself. Never mind that she, Sydney and Broots (Jon Gries) have had nearly five years to catch a fairly identifiable runaway—she looks faaabulous.
What does The Pretender 2001 bring to the show’s Byzantine conspiracy buffet? Too many twists to list without blowing several surprises for the faithful, but, needless to say, Jarod and Miss Parker survive the subway explosion of the series’ finale, and the movie brings up as many questions as it answers leaving things wide open for the in-the-works TNT sequels. Watch for Jarod’s never-before-chronicled introduction to and escape from The Centre (he wasn’t alone), psychic powers for Parker (who looks as good here as Weiss looks disturbingly aged—has it only been eight months?) and a comically bizarre thumb transplant (one for the fans).
In all, The Pretender 2001 meets—and, in a few instances, surpasses—the sophisticated noir standard set by the series, even if it does seem a bit padded for cable-feature length. Kind of like this week’s column, but then again, I’m just “pretending” to be a TV critic.