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Series / The Pretender

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There are pretenders among us. Geniuses with the ability to be become anyone they want to be. In 1963, a corporation known as the Centre isolated a young pretender named Jarod and exploited his genius for their research.

Then, one day, their pretender ran away...

The Pretender is a television series, which ran for 86 episodes over four seasons from September 1996 to May 2000. Boy genius Jarod (Michael T. Weiss) was raised in a secret science-with-a-capital-$ laboratory (known, in a further example of the series' remarkable reticence with full names, only as "The Centre") where his talents were put at the service of the highest bidder. As an adult, he discovers that the information gained from some of his simulations has been used for evil so he escapes The Centre. Once out, he also discovers bit by bit that that pretty much everything he's been told about his (supposedly long-dead) parents is a lie, and makes it his goal to find his real family.

"Are you a doctor?"
"I am today."

Jarod is a mental chameleon: he can "become anyone he wants to be". This doesn't just cover language, culture, mannerisms; given a well-stocked library and a week, he can teach himself the skills needed to pass as anything from a janitor to a brain surgeon. In addition to his own search, each episode sees him using his abilities to uncover some crime or injustice. When he finds the person responsible, he puts them through a non-lethal version of what their victims endured, attempting to convey what his abilities allow him to grasp intuitively. (Sabotaged that safety line? Set up that industrial accident? Buried your enemy alive? Let's see how you like it...)

Jarod has a relatively mild case of No Social Skills. Although he functions normally in social situations, his secluded upbringing means that popular culture largely passed him by. In early seasons, every episode contains a sequence where Jarod discovers and gleefully explores something — Slinkies, Twinkies, Mr. Potato Head, Curious George — that everyone around him takes for granted. This thing is then incorporated into Jarod's plan for teaching the Villain of the Week a lesson, or used to send a taunting message to the Centre agents trying to track him down and take him 'home'.

"The Centre wants him alive."

The remaining regular characters are the team trying to track Jarod down. They come across as relatively sympathetic characters, themselves; the recurring villains of the series are their superiors and colleagues, who threaten them as much as they do Jarod.The core members of the team are:

  • Snarky team leader Miss Parker (Andrea Parker), whose issues with her own parents (her emotionally distant father is the head of the Centre; her mother's murder when she was a girl was never solved) form an ongoing part of the series.
  • Sydney (Patrick Bauchau), a psychiatrist who was Jarod's handler and surrogate parent, and is often caught between his duty as he sees it and his genuine affection for Jarod.
  • Broots (Jon Gries), The Lab Rat and Punch-Clock Villain. A basically ordinary guy who somehow wound up working in this insane asylum, Broots is the audience's surrogate in reacting to the Centre's oddities; perhaps for this reason, he manages to remain normal to the end, the only regular character with no Mysterious Past and no previously unknown relatives suddenly appearing from the woodwork.

Miss Parker gets her own nemesis in the second season, as her team's lack of success in catching Jarod prompts the creation of a rival team under the charming sociopath Mr. Lyle (James Denton). (Renewed menace to Jarod also, since Mr. Lyle has considerably fewer scruples than Miss Parker.) In addition to being her professional rival, Mr. Lyle's presence eventually squishes Miss Parker's personal hopes as it's revealed that he is, literally if fraternally, her Evil Twin, and therefore the son her father has always wanted, rendering moot Miss Parker's attempts to fill that gap which shaped her adult life.

Family is a Central Theme of the series. Many episodes explore fatherhood in various ways. Also, that whole thing with the unexpected relatives.

Early seasons of The Pretender are marked by a real sense of playfulness. Later seasons, when the series loses its humour and becomes increasingly more like The X-Files, are weirder but not as fun.

The canon is being continued by Steven Long Mitchell and Craig W. Van Sickle with a series of novels and graphic novels, the first of which came out in October of 2013.

Not related to the Argentinian series Los Simuladores (which kinda translates to The Pretenders)note , or the band the Pretenders, or for that matter to the Filipino novel The Pretenders.

The Pretender provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Air-Vent Passageway: This seems to be the main way of infiltrating and escaping the Centre, especially during the first season finale. The air vents may have been made for this very purpose, considering how big they are: large and sturdy enough for a grown man to stand upright in and run through.
  • Almost Kiss: Quite a frustrating one in the 2001 movie Island of the Haunted between Miss Parker and Jarod.
  • Always Identical Twins: With one notable exception (Miss Parker and her brother Mr. Lyle), all the twins who appear in the series are identical twins (and many are creepy, single-minded, or both).
  • And Starring: Patrick Bauchau gets the distinction of being credited "And starring Patrick Bauchau as Sydney" in the opening titles.
  • The Atoner:
    • Part of Jarod's motivation is to try to balance the harm he unknowingly did in his years at the Centre.
    • Sydney takes on this role in seasons two, three, and four, most explicitly in "Donoterase", when he mentors Gemini, Jarod's clone, to keep the Centre from abusing Gemini the way they abused Jarod.
  • Bald of Evil: Mr. Raines, the disgraced doctor in charge of the Centre's less ethical research, is entirely bald.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Jarod really does not like it when someone's misery is caused by the misuse of his own Simulations. In "Past Sim", Jarod's hostage rescue Simulation is used by Mr. Lyle to abduct a murder witness (which also leads to the death of a federal agent) - prompting Jarod to declare war. In "Betrayal", Jarod's work is corrupted for terrorist operations.
    • Jarod is also pushed to the edge when families are in danger, especially if the matter somehow mimics his own experiences.
  • Big Labyrinthine Building: The Centre seems to have an infinite number of annexes and sub-basements, each more nefarious than the last.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Several episodes have Jarod conducting conversations with people in their own language, with no subtitles. In the pilot he speaks Greek with a woman keen to avoid surgery for something that can, lucky for her, also be fixed by some tea and a foot massage. In "Flyer", he converses with a deaf woman in sign language. In "Curious Jarod", he speaks with a Hispanic woman in Spanish.
  • Brand X: Insta-Cheez in "The Better Part of Valor" is actually just about the only example: the show generally makes a point of using the real names of products Jarod gets enthusiastic about (including Pez, Silly Putty, Mr. Potato Head, Cracker Jacks, SPAM, and on and on).
  • Bulletproof Vest: Jarod does the "fortunately, I'm unharmed, because I was wearing a bullet-proof vest under my clothes" trick a few times.
  • Catching Up on History: Jarod has to read up on current information since he had been locked up by the Centre since 1963.
  • Celibate Hero: Jarod's not completely asexual, and has had a couple of girls-of-the-week, but his lifestyle doesn't allow long-term relationships and he doesn't go in for casual encounters. Particularly notable is the episode "Gigolo Jarod", in which he spends a week as a gigolo without having sex with anybody, because he's able to figure out what his clients really need and give them that instead. (He's just lucky he never got a client who really needed sex.)
  • Character Name Alias: Whenever he does a pretend, Jarod adopts the surname of a relevant real-life person or fictional character: examples include Jarod Wright, test pilot; Jarod Marley, in the Christmas episode; and Jarod Shatner — in honor of the host of Rescue 911 — when he was working in a search-and-rescue team. And then there's the episode where his boss-to-be is a Dr. Fein, so he adopts the alias of Jarod Howard, leading to a scene with somebody innocently calling out "Dr. Howard! Dr. Fein! Dr. Howard!"
  • Character Witness: In several episodes, including the pilot, Jarod takes time out from his mission to help an unrelated somebody in trouble, and they repay him at the end of the episode by helping him evade the Centre operatives hunting him.
  • Cleanup Crew:
    • The "sweepers". In "A Stand-Up Guy", we see them in action cleaning up one of the Centre's branch offices after a rogue Centre executive kills everybody there and steals an important file.
      Broots: (watching a bodybag being carried out) What happens to them?
      Miss Parker: Nothing. They don't exist any more.
    • There were also Centre mooks called "Cleaners", which Brigitte actually was and what Miss Parker used to be. They seem to be more active assassins, going after people the Centre wants kept quiet permanently.
  • Miss Parker's interrogation of a severely-burned Raines. She needles his skin grafts to make him talk.
  • Creepy Child / Creepy Twins: Several episodes briefly show Sydney engaged in his research before being called away to deal with the latest Jarod situation. Most of his research subjects are creepy twins, creepy children, or both. The pair in "Every Picture Tells a Story" speak in unison, and the pair in "Not Even A Mouse" exhibit Synchronization. It's revealed in the second season that Sydney himself is one half of a set of twins who were experimented on during the Holocaust.
  • Crossover: The series did two Cross Throughs with Profiler, which aired immediately after it. "End Game" crossed through into "Grand Master", and "Spin Doctor" crossed through into "Clean Sweep". Outside these multi-part crossovers, Jarod also turned up on a separate Profiler episode, "Pianissimo", towards the end of both series' runs.
  • Decade-Themed Filter: Miss Parker's flashbacks to happier days in her home life are in color, but kind of washed-out, like an old home movie.
  • Did Not Die That Way: Jarod was told that his parents had been killed in a plane crash; his discovery that they weren't is one of the things that prompts him to break out and start Walking the Earth.
  • Disability Superpower: Angelo is mentally damaged and psychic. In his "Flowers for Algernon" Syndrome episode, it's explicitly shown that as his mental functioning improves, he loses his psychic ability.
  • The Drifter: Jarod moves from town to town as he goes about dishing out vigilante justice, giving people who have wronged others a taste of their own medicine by making them go through what they did to their victims... to a point, he doesn't resort to murder.
  • Enigmatic Institute: As a child, Jarrod was abducted and raised in a secret organization called "The Centre" where his mentor/instructor, Sydney, puts him through simulations in which he is able to feel what other people would feel and understand the motivations for their actions under the same conditions.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In the pilot, Miss Parker and Sydney are first seen being shown around a cargo ship Jarod had been working on:
    Guide: Ma'am, the materials on board are highly explosive!
    Miss Parker: [stubs out cigarette] So am I.
  • An example for Jarod is Alex from 2001. Alex wants revenge because Jarod left him behind (thinking he had died) during his escape and because everyone thought he was inferior to him.
  • Evil Sounds Raspy: The Centre's corrupt leader, Mr. Raines' voice is husky due him being a former smoker who's now on oxygen.
  • Expository Hairstyle Change: Jarod begins the series with a rather dorky haircut that suits his initial characterization as someone who's had a sheltered upbringing and is out of place in the real world. As he gets more worldly, so do his hairstyles.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Jarod wants to find his family; the Centre wants to recapture Jarod; Miss Parker wants to earn her way out of the Centre. The dynamic of the series depends on none of these goals being permanently achieved.
  • Faking the Dead: Mr. Lyle, with both the Centre and the yakuza out to get him, pulls this in "A Stand-Up Guy", although we're supposed to think he was Killed Off for Real until he re-appears a few months later.
  • Feeling Oppressed by Their Existence: This conversation between Jarod and Mr. Raines:
    Jarod: You stole me from my parents. You had the FBI kill my brother, and now you're trying to kill my family. What have I ever done to you?
    Mr. Raines: You exist.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Miss Parker and Broots meet for the first time in the second episode. She starts out considering him beneath contempt, but after two seasons of hunting Jarod — and, perhaps more importantly, watching each others' backs when Centre internal politics get nasty — it's reached the point in "Betrayal" where she's taking serious risks to protect him and describing him as like a brother to her actual brother.
  • 555: All the phone numbers shown in written form begin with 555.
  • Flashback: Flashbacks to Jarod's time at the Centre appear frequently for plot or theme reasons.
  • Flanderization: The Centre is portrayed more clearly as evil the later on the series gets. In the first season Jarod has a sort of apartment within the Centre and then in later seasons, he's kept in a cell. Also the Centre's use of the simulations becomes more diabolical.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking:
    • The evil Mr. Raines is usually seen smoking in flashbacks, which is implied to be the cause of his present-day Vader Breath.
    • Miss Parker, especially. Her Establishing Character Moment has her reluctantly stubbing out her ever-present cigarette around explosives, then snarking that she's more explosive.
  • Handwave: Mr. Raines' lung cancer. He even starts to talk normally.
  • Hard-Work Montage: Jarod gets one in most episodes, setting up his takedown of the villain.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Miss Parker's father for most of the first season. Mostly The Ghost, although his voice is heard on the phone in "Not Even a Mouse" and he is seen as a sinister silhouette in "Ranger Jarod". Finally in "Keys" there's a fake-out Chair Reveal (his chair, but the reveal turns out to be that there's somebody else sitting in it) and then he appears on screen for real, and is thereafter a normally-visible character.
  • He Went That Way: In the pilot episode, Miss Parker and Sydney nearly catch Jarod, but are misdirected in this fashion by somebody he helped earlier in the episode. Happens again in "Keys".
  • Historical In-Joke: Jarod's childhood as a Centre test subject has left him rather ignorant of popular culture, but also privy to a lot of weird history.
    • He recognizes a Magic Eye image immediately — because he unofficially created the underlying technology.
    • He's intimately familiar with the Apollo 13 incident — because he came up with the gravity slingshot used to rescue them.
    • He can smell a conspiracy from across a continent — because his assessment of Who Shot JFK? was that a single gunman couldn't have fired enough shots.
    • He knows the Trilateral Commission is up to no good — because he knows they came to the Centre for a number of projects.
    • He also did an assessment of Marilyn Monroe's death in which he learned to recognize suicides, but we don't get to hear his conclusions - only that she didn't want to die alone.
    • He reviewed the case of Julius Rosenberg, and concluded that Rosenberg was innocent.
    • One of the other Pretenders at the Centre did a review of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
    • That Pretender and Jarod did a joint re-enactment of the capture of the USS Pueblo during the Korean war.
    • Also:
      Senator: You a registered voter, son?
      Jarod: No, sir, but I did help manipulate the Nixon landslide in 1972.
    • His response to being asked whether he ever made model cars as a kid: "I carved the design for what later became the AMC Pacer out of a bar of soap. It wasn't my best work."
  • Hollywood Darkness: When Miss Parker, Sydney, and Broots are exploring the abandoned SL-27 in the last few episodes of the first season, they have only flashlights to illuminate the darkness, but the audience can see the entire scene dimly lit. Among other things, this lets the audience see their reactions to what they discover.
  • How Unscientific!: "Island of the Haunted". It's exactly what it sounds like. And the series finale to boot.
  • Hunting the Rogue:
    • Mr. Lyle joined the Centre but would soon run afoul of the direction, having to hide from the Cleaners before being able to return.
    • Similarly, in Season 4, Mr. Parker had to hide himself from the Cleaners, having been convocated by the Triumvirate over Jarod escaping.
  • Ice Queen: Miss Parker, so much that it became her nickname among colleagues.
  • Identical Grandson:
    • The actress who plays Miss Parker in the present also plays her mother in flashbacks.
    • Jarod's clone, being considerably younger than him, is played by one of the actors who plays Young Jarod in flashbacks.
    • Sydney and his twin brother Jacob are played by the same actor. Another actor plays both of them in flashbacks.
  • In-Series Nickname: Miss Parker's father calls her "Angel". It's explained in "P.T.B." that the nickname dates back to when she was three and her mother called her a 'guardian angel' after she spotted a hazard her father was about to step into.
  • Instant Expert: Justified in Jarod's case; the whole point of his character is that he's so much of an expert in so many things that he can step seamlessly into any profession at will, be it a doctor, a firefighter, or a Naval Commander.
  • Invasion of the Baby Snatchers: The Centre is very aggressive in its adoption practices.
  • Kill It with Fire: Sydney shoots out Raines' oxygen tank, immolating him. A subversion, though, as Sydney hit the oxygen tank by accident. He was quite willing to just shoot Raines dead.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Most of Jarod's plots manufacture some punishment for the Villain of the Week based upon their crimes. Positive examples abound as the people he helps often thwart the Centre's team and help Jarod escape.
  • Laxative Prank: One episode had Jarod as a school teacher. To help a student who was being bullied, they prepared a laxative brownie, knowing the bully would take it from the kid and eat it. They also locked all but one of the porta-johns on the playground except one, so the bully would have to use that one - which they had rigged so the door would fall off while he was in there.
  • Leg Focus: Miss Parker's legs are often accentuated with high heels and miniskirts.
  • Long Lost Sibling: At the end of the second season, Miss Parker learns that not only did she have a twin brother who was Separated at Birth, he's somebody she's met frequently in her adult life.
  • Longest Pregnancy Ever: Brigitte provides a curious example. We learn she is pregnant towards the very end of Season 3, and she gives birth about the half-way mark in Season 4 - roughly spanning nine months in real-time. However, because of other continuity it actually has been one year In-Universe. Brigitte gives birth on the anniversary of Thomas' murder, but she didn't learn she was pregnant until one episode after it.
  • Magical Security Cam: The surveillance footage of Jarod at the Centre which serves as flashbacks is prone, except in a few early episodes, to include dramatic pans, zooms, cuts, etc. Probably the high point is in the episode "Exposed", in which footage of Jarod complaining to Sydney about being watched by a camera all the time is punctuated with a shot of the camera itself.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Mr. Parker, the head of the Centre, starts out as the Big Bad, then the first season finale shows that there's someone above him who treats him as peremptorily as he treats his subordinates. The second season elaborates that Mr. Parker answers to an international conspiracy of Corrupt Corporate Executives called the Triumvirate.
  • Missing Child: In "End Game", Jarod works a case involving a kidnapped boy. Looking at the devastated parents, an agent assisting on the case remarks he doesn't even want to think about what they're going through. This leads to Jarod having an Imagine Spot of his parents reacting to his abduction.
  • Missing Floor: Officially, the Centre has 26 sub-levels. There is another, secret sub-level — SL-27 — which doesn't appear on the Centre's floor plans and is accessed through a hatchway that's supposedly for sewer access.
  • Missing Mom: Miss Parker's mother was murdered in an elevator in the Centre when Miss Parker was a girl, and the shooter never captured. It's an ongoing background mystery that eventually gets fully explained near the end of the final season.
  • Moment Killer: Jarod and Miss Parker can never hold a private conversation for more than a minute without being interrupted.
  • Monochrome Past: Flashbacks to earlier times in the Centre are in monochrome, just like the Centre's surveillance footage. (Some of them actually are surveillance footage, distinguished with a time code in the bottom corner.)
  • Mooks: The Centre's "sweepers".
  • Mundane Object Amazement: Jarod, frequently, in the first couple of seasons. Example include...
    • "Bomb Squad" where he is introduced to "Mr. Potato Head" and is curious as to why the toy is called that when the entire body, not just the head, is a potato.
    • "Bazooka Jarod" where someone gives him some Bazooka bubble gum, he finds the little comics hilarious, and someone else teaches him to blow bubbles... which he keeps practicing and is quite pleased with himself as his technique improves and his bubbles keep getting bigger.
  • My Card: Mr. Lyle's says only Mr. Lyle
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Jarod has a number of these moments when he discovers how his simulations were twisted to hurt people rather than help them.
      "How many people died because of what I thought up?"
    • Sydney also has his fair share when he contemplates how he contributed to "the theft of Jarod's life."
  • Mysterious Past: Any recurring character who didn't have one to start with gained one sooner or later, except for Broots.
  • Myth Arc: Find Jarod's family. They are remarkably elusive.
  • Never Had Toys: Jarod never received toys in the Centre, to the point their discovery is part of major Character Development due to discovery of the outside world.
  • New Job as the Plot Demands: Every week, Jarod assumes a new job and identity that allows him to save some innocent victims whose plight has caught his eye. Justified in that it's the whole point of Jarod's character that he's literally able to do this almost perfectly.
  • New Old Flame:
    • In "The Better Part of Valor", Miss Parker happens to meet an old flame from college, and they hook up again. It ends badly after it turns out he works for the Centre, and set up their reunion so that he could piggyback on her efforts and grab some workplace kudos by catching Jarod himself.
    • "Bulletproof" introduces Michelle, who was the love of Sydney's life but one day broke off their relationship and left town without saying goodbye. After Jarod arranges a reunion, Sydney learns that she was warned off by the Centre, who didn't want Sydney distracted from his work. Unlike many instances of the trope, it's not used as a shortcut to a relationship; Michelle has moved on too far to pick up where she and Sydney left off, and the three episodes she appears in are more about exploring the consequences of the relationship they had and the way it ended.
  • New Powers as the Plot Demands:
    • In the first season, Angelo is said to have a variant of the Pretender ability that allows him to study a specific person's possessions, assume their personality, and instinctively predict their present and future actions; on his first appearance, it takes most of an episode of study before he's ready to start predicting. By the end of the series, this has developed into full-blown psychometry, where he can pick up an object and know what the person it's associated with is doing right now. (At each stage, everybody else acts as if his powers have always been what they currently are.)
    • Miss Parker is shown to be psychic near the series' end.
  • Nice Guy: As ruthless as he can be to his prey (who are almost always guilty as sin,) Jarod is incredibly sweet and kindhearted. This is because Jarod's primary fascination, first and foremost, is people. Human contact and socialization was utterly denied to him.
  • No Full Name Given: To a ridiculous extent; of the main recurring characters, only William Raines, Debbie Broots, and Catherine Parker (née Jamieson) get full names and only the latter two have their full names mentioned more than once.
    • Jarod, Sydney, Jacob, Brigitte, Sam the Cleaner, Willie the Cleaner, Angelo, Major Charles, Margaret, Emily, and Kyle are only known by their first names, and no last names are ever given.
    • Miss Parker, Mr. Parker, Broots, and Mr. Fenigor are only known by their last names, and no first names are ever given.
    • Mr. Lyle is an interesting case, as that's an alias he adopted, and he may not even have a first name. One episode does reveal his full childhood name — Bobby Bowman — but he would probably argue that that's not his name any more, if it ever really was.
    • "Parole" has a scene where Sydney rather awkwardly introduces himself to someone as "Dr. Sydney" rather than let the audience find out what his surname is. (At this point, the audience begins to suspect that even the writers don't know.)
  • No Social Skills: Jarod, Angelo, and most of the Centre kids are awkward with people due to having been brought up in an isolated environment where they hardly ever interact with one another, much less any other children their age, and are mostly only around the few adults whose "project" they are as well.
  • Noodle Incident / Noodle Implements: Jarod drops hints concerning Pretends he did off-camera, usually answering someone's question about his abilities with a version of, "No, but I did/was X once."
  • Nostalgic Musicbox: Miss Parker has a music box that used to belong to her late mother.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: More like Obfuscating Arrogance, in most of his cases Jarod acts like he's only in it for the money and/or the fame, making it even sweeter when he confronts the Monster of the Week because they don't think he would really do what he's doing.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: There are several references to unseen Pretends, where Jarod has resolved an unpleasant situation. The most notable may be the one referenced at the start of "Til Death Do Us Part", where Jarod has dealt with a clown that molested children. According to Broots, the clown was found locked in a tiger cage and with a piece of meat tied to his privates.
  • Oh, Crap!: Jarod being instantly recognized by a Skinhead gang leader, who already knows him from a previous episode.
  • The Old Convict: Jarod meets an older man in jail in the episode where he's trying to help a wrongly convicted murderer.
  • Once a Season: The (increasingly-wacky) misadventures of Argyle, beginning with "Amnesia" in the second season.
  • Once per Episode: Jarod discovers a novelty item, food, movie or television show he's never heard of before.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Miss Parker's determination to be the one to catch Jarod had moments of this. Justified, in that capturing Jarod would ensure her freedom from the Centre, as per the deal she and her father struck. She had to bring Jarod in, and it would be her final case.
  • Opening Narration: Full of many, many memorable quotes, but of particular note are:
    Sydney: The Centre wants [Jarod] alive.
    Miss Parker: Preferably.

    Old Woman: Are you a doctor?
    Jarod: I am today.
  • Papa Wolf: Sydney does want Jarod back at The Centre, but he also wants him safe and alive. As he tells his brother Jacob:
    "Since your accident, I've done things—terrible things—to protect Jarod, to protect you. I even tried to kill Dr. Raines, but the bullet hit his oxygen tank."
  • Perma-Stubble: Jarod has a short beard or scruff in some of his roles. Gangster Jarod in "A Stand-Up Guy" is one example.
  • Phrase Catcher: Any time Miss Parker meets someone who knew her mother, it's guaranteed that the very first thing they say to her is "You look just like her". (And of course, the mother is played by Miss Parker's own actress.)
  • Precious Photo: Jarod's photo of his mother.
  • Previously onů: Flashbacks are presented at the beginning of part two of two-part episodes; also at the beginning of some arc episodes, recapping previous points of the arc.
  • Psychometry: Angelo was one of Dr. Raines' early attempts at creating a Pretender but the treatments destroyed his mind. Instead of the usual Pretender abilities, it gave him the ability to pick up an object and know what the object's owner is doing right now.note 
  • Purely Aesthetic Glasses: Jarod frequently dons a pair of glasses as part of his various guises, even though he sees fine without them.
  • Raised in a Lab: Believing that some children were born geniuses at "pretending" to be other people, the mysterious laboratory Centre raises up and educates promising youngsters to be Pretenders, geniuses with the ability to become anyone they want to be. Then one day, their star pupil escaped...
  • Rearrange the Song: Four times in as many seasons. Seasons 2 and 3 actually utilized the same intro and theme in general, but a couple late episodes of Season 2 aired with a modified theme that didn't last the season.
  • Red Herring: "School Daze" has a two-fer. Jarod learns a boy is being targeted so he can't testify at a murder trial. In trying to figure out who the child is, Jarod initially believes him to be an introverted boy who just moved to town (unaware the actual kid is already in Witness Protection and lied about where he came from). As for the hired killer, Jarod suspects the school's creepy janitor, but he's actually an undercover federal agent. The real threat is another member of the school faculty that Jarod had met.
  • Revealing Cover Up:
    • As a child, Jarod had been told his parents died in a plane crash. In the pilot, he discovers the truth by comparing his medical record to his supposed parents'. He has a genetic anomaly in his blood; they don't, meaning he can't be their son.
    • In "Spin Doctor", Jarod investigates the supposed suicide of Todd Baxter. Evidence suggests he was arrested for drugs in college and simply jumped out a window after shooting up, but Jarod learns otherwise. Baxter was murdered because he was about to expose an agent on the take and his good name is being blemished so no one looks into what he had been investigating. After being informed that the campus police officer who busted Baxter doesn't exist, Jarod baits a couple agents leading the investigation. Jarod asks to contact the supposed campus officer for an interview and the one who says he already did so is the dirty agent.
  • Sarcastic Confession:
    • If anybody asks Jarod how he learned some impressive skill, he will tell them; since he usually learned it by reading books and MacGyvering training aids, his reply is always taken as a joke. It gets better when he is called on a skill in a later episode; when one of his "projects" asks him how he leaned to drive so well, he honestly answers, "Indianapolis!" (It turns out he learned how to race at an ARCADE in Indianapolis...)
  • Same Language Dub: In flashbacks featuring Timeshifted Actors as the younger versions of Mr. Parker, Sydney, or Jacob, their lines are looped by the actor who plays the present-day version of the character.
  • Save the Jerk: Jack frequently saves or helps Miss Parker, the hound sent by the Centre and its leadership to capture him back.
  • Searching for the Lost Relative: Jarod was abducted by the Centre as a child, and told that his parents had died in a plane crash. At the beginning of the series, he discovers that the plane crash victims couldn't have been his parents, and escapes from the Centre to go in search of his real family and find out who he really is.
  • Separated at Birth: Miss Parker, thought to have been an only child, is revealed at the end of the second season to have had a twin brother who was separated from his family at birth.
  • Shoe Phone: Jarod's briefcase hides a video monitor and discs.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Jarod's Character Name Aliases often refer to his "pretend" occupation of the week.
      • He uses "Wright" (as in Orville and Wilber) in "Flyer" where he's a test pilot.
      • He uses "Ness" (as in Eliot) in the episode where he's an FBI Agent.
    • One episode features several references to the game "Monopoly" including Jarod using the phrase "the Parker brothers" in a message to the Centre, him having stayed at a roadside inn called "Park Place Motel", and using "Bradley" as his surname. Milton-Bradley originally turned the game down and Parker Brothers manufactured it.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Miss Parker, complete with the obligatory "What happened to you?" "I grew up" conversation in the first episode.
  • Stereotypical Nerd: Broots — he's good with computers, bad with social interaction and dress sense. In "Exposed", he reminisces fondly about the Thunderbirds merch he used to own. In "FX" he identifies one of the lesser Frankenstein sequels from a single line of dialogue. In "Once in a Blue Moon" he voluntarily admits to having wanted to be Aquaman when he was a kid.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Three out of four season finales, plus various in-season episodes include explosions.
  • Swiss-Cheese Security: Jarod and Angelo can just breeze in and out of the Centre at will.
  • Tangled Family Tree: Originally it's just Jarod searching for his parents, but then he finds he has a long lost brother, a sister, a clone, and a genetically altered half-brother. Said half-brother is also Miss Parker's half-brother, and her Evil Twin brother is Lyle, neither of whom are really sure who their father is. Mr. Raines and Mr. Parker are actually brothers, and could both be Lyle and Miss Parker's father. Both Jarod and Parker regard Sydney as a father-figure, and he may have been sleeping with Catherine Parker as well as being her psychiatrist, thus possibly being Lyle and Miss Parker's father. Sydney also has a mysterious twin brother named Jacob. Basically everyone but Angelo, Brigitte, and Broots are related.
  • Tap on the Head: People get knocked out quite a bit, including more than once to Jarod. Except in the episode straightforwardly titled "Amnesia", he never seems to suffer lasting ill effects.
  • Timeshifted Actor: The series features frequent flashbacks to Jarod's childhood, so most of the main characters have a secondary actor who plays them in flashbacks. Jarod has two, one who plays him as a young child and one who plays him as a teen. And they spun young Jarod off as a clone. Averted with Jarod's mother, whose appearances are mostly in flashbacks and dream sequences; for her few present-day appearances, she's played by the same actor, aged up.
  • Title In: Frequently used to indicate where Jarod is this week.
  • Trademark Favorite Food:
    • Jarod discovers Pez in the pilot episode and eats them throughout the series.
    • Angelo and his Cracker Jacks, which Mr. Raines gives him as an incentive to do whatever it is he's asking of him. A flashback in "Toy Surprise" reveals that he was introduced to them by the young Miss Parker in a Tastes Like Friendship moment.
  • Triple Take: When Jarod confronts the villain of the week, he often tells them what he's deduced about what really went down... "[And then|But instead], you [whatever it was they did] — didn't you?", with a Triple Take on the "didn't you".
  • True Companions: Sydney, Jarod, Miss Parker, and Broots are much like family - a decidedly dysfunctional family.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Miss Parker and her mother look eerily identical.
  • Unnamed Parent: Used with Miss Parker's father, whom she calls "Daddy" and everyone else calls "Mr. Parker" or "Sir". When he gets married again in "Pool", the show makes a point of not revealing his name during the exchange of vows. This trope is usually done with the parents of child characters, but perhaps it's a metaphor for how much Miss Parker is still stuck in a child's role when it comes to her father.
  • Vader Breath: Mr. Raines has wheezy, labored breathing (and is permanently hooked up to an oxygen tank he wheels around behind him).
  • Van in Black: The Centre goes in for shiny black SUVs with tinted windows. In the 90's, no less.
  • Villain of the Week: Every episode centers around Jarod giving some criminal a taste of their own medicine.
  • We Help the Helpless: Jarod considers it his duty to do provide justice for someone who has been wronged, as just about every project he did for The Centre was ultimately used to help some megalomaniac profit at the expense of innocent people.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy:
  • Jarod and his father-figure, Sydney. In both present and flashback scenes of "Scott Free", Jarod actually asks for acknowledgement, but Sydney won't give it to him because he feels it would be improper for a host of reasons. Viewers then see that Sydney has kept several mementos of Jarod, including a Father's Day card made by him.
  • Wham Line: In 2001, while the pursuit team grills Raines about Alex.
    Raines: Jarod didn't escape alone.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Mr. Raines is shown to have done terrible things to the children who were his study subjects; for example, making Jarod pour actual acid pellets (not fake like Jarod thought) on Kyle's hand, which is extremely painful and leaves him scarred for life, both physically and psychologically.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: According to one of the later episodes, after the series took its turn for the woo-woo, the formation of The Centre was "foretold", as was Jarod's arrival.
  • Yubitsume: Mentioned in "Past Sim", and one of the yakuza is shown to have his pinky finger missing. The particular yakuza leader is established to up the ante to thumbs when somebody really pisses him off, setting up a plot point where Mr. Lyle cuts a deal with him, Jarod interferes, and Mr. Lyle spends the rest of the series minus a thumb. (Which is more dramatic than a little finger, but also, to be churlish about it, much easier for the makeup people to fake on an ongoing basis.)