Tuned In

TV Tonight: Ringer

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When I previewed the pilot of The CW’s twin-noir thriller Ringer earlier this summer, I wanted to be charitable. Partly because, like many of you, I suspect, I loved Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But also because the pilot seemed more technically rough than most—a lot of awkward greenscreen and splitscreen effects and rough musical cues—and I assumed that if a finished pilot smoothed those out, it might tweak the script as well.

Instead, surprisingly, the CW told critics to review the original screener and sent nothing further out. Sometimes you’ve got to go to war with the pilot you’ve got, not the pilot you want. And in this case, the pilot I got does not make me feel very much encouraged about Ringer.

The premise of Ringer is, potentially, the stuff of a good thriller series, or at minimum, one of those interesting-but-might-have-made-a-better-movie series. Bridget (Gellar), a recovering drug addict and stripper, is the sole witness to a gangster’s murder of a fellow stripper. She agrees to testify (to get a prostitution charge dropped) but gets cold feet when she realizes the killer wants her dead. She runs off to see her estranged, wealthy twin sister, Siobhan, in New York City. When Siobhan disappears in an accident (or “accident”), Bridget seizes the chance to take over her life. (A series premise, minus the twin aspect, not unlike The Riches.) In the process, she discovers that Siobhan has a pile of dark, potentially deadly secrets of her own.

It’s neither Buffy nor a literary character study, but on paper it has the potential to be a fun thriller. The pilot of Ringer, though, has little fun or any other animating spirit. (A double waste, since Gellar’s strength on Buffy was combining drama with humor.) After one hour, it’s a blaringly melodramatic drama packed with “twists” that will shock no one who’s watched a daytime soap in the last fifty years: mismatched twins! secret lovers! a killer trying to cover his tracks! (I’m leaving out a few examples on the arguable grounds they could be considered spoilers, but I’m confident you would guess them in about 15 seconds of brainstorming.)

The biggest problem, though, is that despite a decent cast (including Ioan Gruffudd as Siobhan’s husband and Nestor Carbonell as the lawman looking for Bridget), there are no characters that feel like fleshed-out people. This is a particular challenge for Gellar: her Siobhan is vaguely stiff and distant, while Bridget—who could be interesting in so many ways—is generically scared and repentant. It’s a liability when Bridget shares scenes with people she’s supposed to have a relationship with, and it saps her character further when she’s playing Bridget playing Siobhan.

And while the script and likely the direction have a lot to do with the problem, Gellar has to share some blame. She’s done well in roles, like Buffy, that are written well for her; she doesn’t seem to have it in her to dig down and bring her own sense of depth, pain and brutal reality to an underwritten character. Bridget should come across as a woman who’s been through the (w)ringer, consumed by an addiction. But the script gives her little to work with, leaving a vacuum—especially when she plays opposite herself in splitscreen—occasionally filled by deja vu Buffy flashes.

Ultimately, you can’t blame this on the technical aspects: those simply kick some bad scenes up a notch to laughable. (One key scene of the sisters on a boat looks like they’re on a park bench that happens to have water rushing by.) Technical aspects can be upgraded: the failure to create compelling central characters with voices is a tougher fix, especially when the story relies on one 2-D character pretending to be a second one.

That aspect is, at least, the one potential saving grace of Ringer: the interest of the show comes from our experiencing, with Bridget, the gradually revealed secret life of a sister she never really knew. So far, though, those revelations fail to surprise, a significant flaw in a thriller that depends on twists. If the story-through-backstory becomes more compelling, and in the process Bridget and Siobhan become well-enough developed to give Gellar something to do, Ringer might turn around. So far, though, it’s just twice as much of a disappointing thing.