Trying to describe The Pretender to people who’s never seen it is nearly impossible. The premise is ridiculous and the twists unbelievable. It’s a supremely strange show and I literally can’t believe it lasted four seasons on NBC.
Here’s a summary: A man named Jarod (no last name) escapes from the Centre (no descriptive name), where he has spent his entire childhood being used for his astonishing intellect to... run simulations of things so that... the people paying the Centre... could get the best plan possible...for whatever. He’s pursued by Miss Parker (no first name), the daughter of the man in charge of the Centre; Sydney (OH MY GOD WHY DID NO ONE IN THIS SHOW HAVE FULL NAMES), the doctor who had essentially raised Jarod; and Broots, a computer nerd.
The formula of each episode was basically that Jarod (Michael T. Weiss) would show up somewhere in a brand new job—he could literally do anything, that’s what “Pretender” means—to solve some sort of injustice. He’d do that, arrange for the bad guy to suffer some sort of ironic pain and arrest, and then leave again, usually just before Miss Parker (Andrea Parker) showed up to chase him.
And that part, where Jarod was basically a superhero, was weird enough. When you add in whatever the hell the Centre was, the show’s mythology gets downright insane. Dredging up specific missions of Jarod’s is hard, but the weird shit happening on the Centre end? Easy.
They have a “tribunal” system for interrogating employees about things going wrong. There are Cleaners, which are like a secret police, and Sweepers, which are security. Because why not have a big strange corporation with an impenetrable naming scheme.
Sydney was always doing some sort of weird experiment with twins. There was a creepy bald dude named Raines who had an oxygen tank. Miss Parker had a secret sociopathic twin who, I swear to god, lost a thumb at one point. Actually, everyone had secret relatives running around. Sydney had a secret twin in a coma. Miss Parker had a couple of brothers and an uncle. At one point there was a young clone of Jarod wandering around. There was a guy in the vents who has his own special mind powers. Oh, and Jarod cartesd around a case full of surveillance footage of his entire childhood.
Plus the name thing which is downright ridiculous. Mr. Parker doesn’t ever use his daughter’s name in order to preserve this conceit. So he calls her “Angel” instead. Her brother? Mr. Lyle. Is that his first name, his last name? NEITHER! It’s an alias. At one point, Sydney is introduced as “Dr. Sydney” in order to avoid naming him properly. Are these people’s names the anti-life equation? What’s happening?!
All of that was weird as hell, but then the show got canceled... and somehow got weirder. There were two TV movies made after the show proper ended. Pretender 2001 basically dealt with the cliffhanger left by the season four finale and the series’ cancellation. Island of the Haunted added a ton of backstory to the Parker family and introduced to all his insanity... a prophecy and magic. SURE. I GUESS.
And yet, somehow, I kind of love this show? Its early seasons were mostly fun little adventures. The later seasons went off the deep end in a serious way, and that makes it even more enjoyable somehow. The cast was engaging and everyone involved seemed to have a blast, which translated to the viewing experience. It’s so campy and ridiculous and exactly the thing to watch in syndication while doing homework. Which is how I, and the one other person I ever met who watched it, encountered it.
I’m still annoyed by the name thing, though.