There used to be an old saw in television that you couldn't do a successful series about newspapermen because they're observers, not participants in stories. But producer Stephen J. Cannell proves this to be wrong Sunday night on NBC with "The Great Pretender" (9 p.m., Channel 2).
In the fast-paced two-hour drama, which has the makings of a good series, Bruce Greenwood ("St. Elsewhere") plays Earl Brattigan, a columnist reinstated at his newspaper after a three-year suspension. A judge has ruled that his publisher, Owen Milner (Donald Moffat), must take him back. Seems the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer had implicated his boss in a shady political contribution scandal that almost toppled him.
But Milner, doing a little nit-picking, points out that the settlement says Brattigan must be given "a" column, not "the" column. So he tells the brash reporter to write a column based on the newspaper's dead files, a collection of stories that never were printed. And he assigns him work space in the sub-basement.
Brattigan accepts the challenge. He finds a story written by a young reporter, Kate Hightower (Jessica Steen), about an accidental death of an owner of a small power company. Viewers already know the death wasn't accidental because the opening scene of the movie shows a couple of mobsters paying the man a visit; when he refuses to make a deal to sell his property, he's electrocuted.
Because he knew the victim, Brattigan correctly concludes he was too knowledgeable about electricity to have had an accident. Time to go to work.
He invites Hightower to join him, since it was originally her story, but their working relationship gets off to a rocky start. "I'm not a big Earl Brattigan fan," she tells him. "I don't think Milner should have been forced to take you back."
But very soon she learns what makes Brattigan tick.
Throughout the drama, Brattigan, via voice-over, gives his rules of investigative journalism. For one, "follow the dollar." Another, if you can't tell the forest from the trees, "ask who owns the property."
The two reporters wind up at the power plant and see surveying going on by Japanese and Americans, the latter obviously mobsters. Brattigan starts taking pictures wildly, getting closer and closer, until they're seen and there's a confrontation.
They pretend to be honeymooners taking pictures, but when one mobster demands his camera, Brattigan secretly removes the film, tosses the camera at him, and they make a run for it as the car chasing them turns over.
Mr. Greenwood, with his boyish looks and free-wheeling style, is very likable as Brattigan, who takes on different identities as he pursues the story. Mr. Greenwood and "The Great Pretender" deserve more life as a series.