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''X-Files'' copycats flood fall's TV market

”The Pretenders,” ”Dark Skies,” and ”Profiler”

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”X-Files” copycats flood fall’s TV market

In one of the riskier moves of the new fall season, NBC’s Saturday prime-time lineup consists of three bleak, downbeat shows, Dark Skies (8-9 p.m.), The Pretender (9-10 p.m.), and Profiler (10-11 p.m.). The network deserves credit for trying to establish a moody tone in an interesting response to feel-good competition like CBS’ Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and ABC’s Second Noah and Coach. Tough luck, therefore, that its feel-bad shows turn out to be so variously lousy.

For its first episode, at least, Dark Skies will be highly entertaining for fans of The X-Files, since Skies rips off Files with amazing gall. (Now, there’s a name for a sci-fi show: Amazing Gall.) Set in the early ’60s, Skies is built around a sinister government plot to keep the American public from knowing about alien visitations to Earth. Our heroes are a couple of idealistic young John F. Kennedy acolytes, played by Eric Close (Sisters) and Megan Ward (Party of Five). Hired to work for the government during the JFK administration, they stumble upon UFOs, conspiracies, and alien bugs. (Sound familiar?)

Skies tries to be unsettling in an X-Files manner by encouraging paranoia about government control and by showing gooey space monsters invading people’s bodies. (An ooky operation — a ”cerebral eviction” of a bug from someone’s skull — figures in the premiere.) But the language of Dark Skies is so wholly derivative of Files as to be laughable, or at least snickerable. You’d think that the people behind this show — intended as drama, not parody — would be smart enough to know that you can’t take an X-Files tag line beloved by its fans, ”The truth is out there,” and appropriate it without inviting ridicule. Yet, in the pilot alone, there are endlessly foolish variations on it: ”I will tell you the truth now, if you will listen”; ”I’m pretty close to the truth”; ”The truth is overrated, John”; ”The truth is down here — third door on the right”; and ”The truth is, this is a damn good cake.” The truth is, this is a damn silly show.

The protagonist of The Pretender is himself a sort of walking X-File, a ”genius” who possesses ”the ability to insinuate [himself] into any walk of life.” Thus, in the premiere, Jarod Russell (Michael T. Weiss, whose dimples are as deep as his voice) passes himself off as a sea captain, a surgeon, and an airline pilot. Jarod is supposed to be a hero, but in fact he’s just slightly less menacing than the people who are after him — members of a clandestine, pretentiously spelled agency called The Centre. It seems Jarod had been raised as a boy genius by The Centre and then ran away to do good, rather than, I dunno, try to take over the world!, as they say on Pinky & the Brain.

Jarod’s chief nemesis is the seethingly but pointlessly angry Miss Parker, played by Andrea Parker (ER, JAG). And, oh my goodness, is she ever a toughie. ”The materials are highly explosive,” someone warns Miss Parker. ”So am I,” she growls, grinding out her cigarette butt with a black, spike-heeled boot (it’s Miss Parker as Mrs. Peel, from The Avengers). The Pretender is authentic hokum.

Finally, there’s Profiler, which taps into The X-Files‘ fondness for killer crime-scene scenarios. Ally Walker, whom few of us saw in the recent film de Shaquille O’Neal, Kazaam, stars as Dr. Sam Waters, a forensic psychologist who ”thinks in images.” ”I try to picture what they do,” she says of murderers, and so of course we’re shown what’s in her head: crimes filmed blurrily, to suggest brutality beyond prime-time boundaries.

Profiler offers nothing that hasn’t been seen in scores of other thrillers, but it is less chilly than Skies or Pretender. Waters, a single mom, has a cute kid (Caitlin Wachs) and a wise, wry pal (Erica Gimpel). She also has a nicely sour FBI colleague played by veteran screen villain Robert Davi (Licence to Kill). Like Dark Skies and The Pretender, though, Profiler runs on atmosphere, not ideas. This trio’s grim pessimism about human nature is a dead cliche. Dark Skies: C- The Pretender: D Profiler: C