The new fall TV shows are starting to premiere, and if you’ve seen the promos – or, worse, if you’re like me and have seen most of the pilot episodes – you know this doesn’t seem to be an especially promising freshman class. One show that seems to have people (and by “people,” I mean “my friends and/or people I know online”) excited is the CW’s new soap opera “Ringer” (it debuts tomorrow night at 9) for one obvious reason: it stars Sarah Michelle Gellar in her first regular TV role since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ended eight years ago.
And I get that. Though not a lot of people ever watched “Buffy,” many of those who did felt a level of passion for it that’s not standard even for your usual list of someone’s favorite TV shows. “Buffy” was as much religious experience as it was high school monster drama, and Gellar’s performance in the title role – one where she was asked to be both grim and funny, to be vulnerable and indomitable in consecutive moments, and, most importantly of all, to make a show called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” seem something other than ridiculous tripe – was a large part of why.
To have her back on the small screen that made her a star – and on a network made up of the remnants of the two networks that aired “Buffy” at different stages of its life – is understandably exciting for some.
But “Ringer” unfortunately doesn’t seem like a better use of her talents than any of the movies she’s starred in since “Buffy” ended.
Sure, she gets to play a pair of identical twins – one (Siobhan) allegedly good, one (Bridget) bad – and even briefly interact with herself, but the show is stiff and dull, the characters (including both twins) thin, the situations laughable – even though it isn’t trying to be campy fun.
Bridget seems to be the troubled one: a stripper, a recovering addict, and the only witness to a brutal murder by a local crimelord. Afraid for her life, she runs away to New York to look up wealthy socialite sister Siobhan.
“Your life seems perfect,” Bridget tells her, in one of many exchanges throughout the pilot that’s leaden with symbolism. (When in doubt, characters are placed in front of mirrors or other reflective surfaces.)
“Close to it,” Siobhan replies – shortly before she vanishes without a trace while on a boat outing with Bridget. Bridget then decides the only sensible way to solve all her troubles is to take Siobhan’s place – only to discover that (shocker!) Siobhan’s life wasn’t nearly as picture-perfect as it looked from the outside.
Much of what made Gellar so good on “Buffy” – and the thing that’s hamstrung her as much as it has most other alums of Joss Whedon-created shows when they’ve moved out into the wider world – was her versatility. She kicked butt, and she cried a lot, but she was also wicked with a quip and believable just as a plain old teenager who didn’t much want to be fighting robots or zombies that week. She may not have been the best at any one skill, but she was good at so many of them that the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. Here, she’s not asked to do nearly as much. Bridget looks nervous, Siobhan looks cool, and Bridget-as-Siobhan acts cool while transparently looking nervous. And neither character seems particularly interesting. (And certainly neither gets to be funny at any point, which I always felt was Gellar’s greatest strength.)
The cast also includes Ioan Grufffudd (“Fantastic Four”) as Siobhan’s distant husband, Kristoffer Polaha (“Life Unexpected”) as a member of their social circle and Nestor Carbonell (“Lost”) as the federal agent trying to find Bridget. It is, in other words, a cast full of adults on a network that traditionally has little interest in characters who are older than mid-20s. (Or else uses them only as clueless parents for the teenage characters.) “Ringer” wasn’t developed for the CW, though, but for its elder sibling CBS, which didn’t have room on its schedule – and/or recognized that, despite Gellar and company, the show’s a snooze – and sent it on down the corporate ladder. This will be an interesting proposition for the CW, which has so narrowly-defined both its programming and its audience that I’m not sure it’s even possible for a show outside the “Gossip Girl” demo to find traction. Does the average CW viewer even know that “Buffy” exists, or do they prefer their undead drama to be “Vampire Diaries”-flavored?
Then again, the one advantage of that narrowcasting is that the bar for CW success is very, very low – in other words, low enough that even if the audience is just made up of the Gen X’ers who loved “Buffy” a decade or more ago, that’ll be enough for it to work.
But barring a significant step up in quality – or at least the self-awareness to stop taking its silly plot and characters so seriously – those people will only be watching out of loyalty to a part that Gellar played a long time ago, on two different networks that no longer exist, and not because she’s presently doing work that merits that kind of devotion.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org