‘Ringer’: What went wrong with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s TV comeback

It was supposed to be a glorious “homecoming.”

“Ringer” brought “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” star Sarah Michelle Gellar back to TV! On the CW! (The network born from the merger of dual “Buffy” homes the WB and UPN.)

After the CW formally announced the show’s pickup last May, the summer of 2011 was filled with promise. Gellar made a trip to Comic-Con and was profiled in an Entertainment Weekly cover story.

Then “Ringer” premiered in September to an underwhelming, if not unacceptable, 2.84 million viewers. At the very least, the number was a several year high for the CW in the timeslot. But the show never hit 2 million viewers again, and most recently dipped as low as 1.05 million with the April 3 episode.

“Ringer” wraps its first season tonight, teetering on the brink of near-certain cancellation, and the season finale looks poised to do double duty as the series’ swan song.

What went wrong? A few suggestions…

The storylines were too convoluted

What originally seemed like a fun hook — Sarah Michelle Gellar…as twins! — soon became emblematic of the show’s problems. Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who’s playing? Who’s being played? The twist-heavy drama kept those questions constantly in flux within a flashback/flashforward structure nearly as convoluted as “Damages” — without the top level writing, directing and acting.

The FBI, the mob, European bankers, reappearances of characters presumed dead, Ponzi schemes, a psycho ex-wife, inappropriate teacher/student relationships, fake pregnancies, real pregnancies and more…

That’s all well and good in a typical soap opera, but what about one in which two of the main characters look exactly alike and frequently pretend to be each other? Is that “good twin” Bridget pretending to be “bad twin” Siobhan, or vice versa? Is Bridget just Bridget now? Is Siobhan, Siobhan? With so much going on, and so little of it making any sense, does it even matter?

It aired on the CW

Originally developed for CBS, “Ringer” was ceremoniously relocated to the baby sister network when it became clear CBS wouldn’t have a place for it on the schedule. While a heavily serialized show like “Ringer” would probably die a quick death on procedural-obsessed CBS, the relatively “mature” drama of “Ringer” never felt completely at home on CW either.

Though it provided CW with a promotable star in Gellar, the adult-oriented show didn’t exactly click with the network’s brand of youthful sex appeal as defined by “Vampire Diaries” and “Gossip Girl.” While “Ringer” is actually outperforming the flailing “Gossip,” it’s still failing to keep pace with mid-level CW performers like “90210” (its lead-in) and the dearly departed “One Tree Hill.” Surely the CW expected better than that from a name star.

Gellar didn’t have the support she deserved

Yes, she was supposed to be the draw, but “Ringer” largely failed to surround Gellar with characters — and actors — worth bouncing off of. Her two most talented castmates were crippled by poor story choices. “Fantastic Four” star Ioan Gruffudd was cuckolded as Siobhan’s clueless husband Andrew Martin, who never seemed to grow suspicious of any of the numerous people plotting against him in his professional and personal life. (I’m still hoping the show pulls a final twist revealing that Andrew has been controlling everything all along. It wouldn’t make sense, but it would be hilarious.)

Nestor Carbonell, who signed on to the show fresh off of playing Richard Alpert on “Lost,” was mostly sidelined or squandered as determined FBI Agent Victor Machado. He never really held love interest potential for either Bridget or Siobhan, so the soapy show didn’t really know what to do with him. (It’s easier to imagine the role expanded on the original CBS version of the show, where a detective would come in handy on a weekly basis.)

The less said about co-stars Kristoffer Polaha as Siobhan’s smarmy lover Henry and Mike Colter as Bridget’s dull NA sponsor Malcolm, the better. And the show barely bothered to introduce significant female support aside from Siobahn’s irksome stepdaughter Juliet (Zoey Deutch), a post-pilot addition likely meant to placate the CW’s target audience.

Tara Summers demonstrated some spunk as Siobahn’s best friend Gemma, but her tenure was short-lived. A promising mid-season guest spot from Mädchen Amick went nowhere.

It wasn’t until the show introduced “Rescue Me’s” Andrea Roth as Andrew’s mentally unbalanced ex-wife Catherine in episode 12 that Gellar found a true equal/foil. The writers enjoyed the character so much they kept using Catherine as the default “surprise!” culprit for whatever scheme they’d cooked up that week. The twists grew predictable, and claustrophobic, but Roth was always game. Sadly, it appears Catherine was busted for good in the penultimate episode.

The “Revenge” factor

When “Ringer” premiered, launching a big splashy nighttime soap on network television still sounded like a Sisyphean task. The only show to truly crack the code in recent years was “Desperate Housewives,” which mixed elements of sit-com and satire into the traditional soap.

Unfortunately for “Ringer,” ABC was about to give the primetime soap another more straightforward shot with the twisty Hamptons-set thriller “Revenge.” And somehow “Revenge” clicked. It wasn’t a mega-hit, but it was a solid performer from the start. Suddenly all the TV fan sites and entertainment magazines that might have been sympathetic to “Ringer” were full on obsessed with “Revenge.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that “Revenge” avoided the other traps that plagued “Ringer” and found a way to maneuver its attractive, expansive cast through cleanly conceived and tightly executed plots while remaining unquestionably on brand for its network.

It just wasn’t good enough

And here’s the bottom line on “Ringer” and the inescapable disappointment of Gellar’s return to TV: It was never very good. Even at its guilty pleasure best — like the penultimate episode which balanced Catherine’s complete unraveling with a flat out ridonkulous subplot that found Siobahn going into labor in a closet while a Russian call girl overdosed on cocaine in bed with a client just a few feet away — there were still too many flaws to believe the writers really understood what they were doing. (Check out executive producer Pam Veasey’s interview with TVGuide.com for more on exactly what the writers thought they were doing.)

Gellar isn’t just any actress. She’s Buffy Summers. During those initial promotional rounds for “Ringer,” Gellar told multiple sources that she didn’t feel any special pressure to succeed on TV. She already had “Buffy” and an experience like that can never be duplicated.

If that’s really true then I guess she made a solid choice in “Ringer.” It never even came close.

The season finale of “Ringer” airs April 17, 9 p.m. ET on the CW