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The Pretender

The second of NBC's three new Saturday night hours that embody dark, moody and altogether derivative themes ("Must Glean TV," anyone?), "The Pretender" is a fantasy about a man raised in captivity since childhood whose phenomenal cerebral powers enable him to literally become anyone he wants.

With:
Cast: Michael T. Weiss, Andrea Parker, Patrick Bauchau, Jeffrey Shepard, Steven Tobolowsky, Peter Michael Goetz, L. Scott Caldwell, Lilyan Chauvin.

The second of NBC’s three new Saturday night hours that embody dark, moody and altogether derivative themes (“Must Glean TV,” anyone?), “The Pretender” is a fantasy about a man raised in captivity since childhood whose phenomenal cerebral powers enable him to literally become anyone he wants.

Filmed in Toronto by MTM Enterprises. Executive producers, Steven Long, Mitchell Van Sickle, Craig W. Van Sickle, Rick Wallace; producer, Sascha Schneider; director, Wallace; creator-writers, Long, Mitchell Van Sickle, Craig W. Van Sickle; production coordinator, Sarah James Overton; director of photography, Anthony Janelli; production designer, Robb Wilson King; art director, Lindsey Hermer Bell; set decorator, Caroline Gee; costume designer, Noreen Landry; casting, Sharon Bialy; If I’m NBC, I tell this guy, “OK, be Bill Cosby. We could really use him. Now become, uh, oh, Tom Hanks. And hey, while you’re at it, can you play the entire TV cast of ‘MASH’? And then all four Golden Girls?”

Once this man, Jarod Russell (Michael T. Weiss), escapes the clutches of his anal-retentive captors, “The Pretender” becomes “Zelig,” “The Fugitive,” “The Equalizer,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Quantum Leap” and “The Wild, Wild West” all rolled into one, stirred together with sappy sentiment and an unsettling, off-kilter tone that leaves you feeling as if you’ve just watched an hour of television through gauze.

The Cliff’s Notes version of the story is this: Jarod, a genius whose brain is a virtual supercomputer, was stolen from his parents by an insidious, clandestine agency called the Centre, where he was raised and exploited for his ability to, uh, think good.

But Jarod finally figures out a way to escape as a grown-up (you’d think if he were so smart he could have concocted a scheme to bolt years before) and decides he must do good deeds for mankind like help disabled boys and bust bad doctors and form emotional bonds with misunderstood, middle-aged Greek women.

Chasing our hero to bring his brain back to its rightful prison is Miss Parker (Andrea Parker), who seems particularly angst-ridden because she was never given a proper first name. At least the actress Parker seems to understand that this show needs to be played for laughs; she camps and vamps brilliantly with an icy, sniveling style. You know this woman is the very embodiment of evil because she smokes.

There is a certain earnest appeal to the manner in which Weiss goes through the paces of insinuating himself into a variety of play-acting roles. And because NBC sneaked the pilot Thursday night at 10, his character’s first leap is naturally into surgical scrubs. He’s not a real TV doctor, he just plays one on a TV show.

Before the opening hour is done, Jarod will have performed an emergency tracheotomy while passing himself off as a fill-in surgeon, convinced people he was a real airline pilot and taken his first-ever bite of ice cream. Remarkably, he finds that it tastes like chicken.

About all this protagonist doesn’t do with his amazing mental powers is hatch believable scenarios. Alas, he can blame a pedestrian script from writer-creators Steven Long, Mitchell Van Sickle and Craig W. Van Sickle, and Rick Wallace’s awkward direction for that.

The Pretender

Production: NBC, THURS. SEPT. 19, 10 P.M.

Crew: Editor, Lance Luckey; music, John Debney, Charles Sydnor; visual effects, David J. Woods, Greg Williams. 60 MIN.

With: Cast: Michael T. Weiss, Andrea Parker, Patrick Bauchau, Jeffrey Shepard, Steven Tobolowsky, Peter Michael Goetz, L. Scott Caldwell, Lilyan Chauvin.

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