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Ringer: “Pilot”

This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Carrie Raisler, who will be reviewing the series week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff look at Ringer.

Carrie: Let’s just get this out of the way so we can all acknowledge it and then move on: Ringer is not Buffy The Vampire Slayer. As much as the Internet may want it to be and as much as The CW is capitalizing on Buffy’s legacy by making Sarah Michelle Gellar’s return to television its entire advertising campaign, the two shows are completely separate beasts. Any attempt to intertwine the fondness people feel for Buffy with what they will see in the Ringer pilot will only end up being confusing—and ultimately disappointing—for everyone involved.

Diminishing confusion is important because Ringer is very, well, involved. Gellar plays estranged twins Siobhan Martin and Bridget Kelly, who reunite when stripper-turned-federal witness Bridget, who was set to testify against her creepy, mob-connected boss, flees her protective custody and runs to Siobhan for help. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other in years, due to some deep dark secret that tore them apart and drove Bridget into a life of substance abuse and stripping (in Wyoming, because that’s where everyone goes when they want to do blow and dance on a pole for a living), and their rift goes so deep not even Siobhan’s husband Andrew (Ioan Gruffudd) knows Bridget exists.

This last little nugget is key, because when Siobhan and Bridget go on a fun afternoon boat ride—in what is obviously, like, the Paramount studio water tank, and, at least in the review screener, features some of the worst green screen effects ever presented on television—Bridget takes a nap on the boat and Siobhan disappears. Bridget believes Siobhan killed herself (Or did she?) and decides the only logical thing for her to do is assume Siobhan’s identity in order to keep hiding from her old boss. It’s what anyone would do in those circumstances! Once she steps into Siobhan’s perfect life, however, she learns it isn’t so perfect after all, with a distant husband, secret lover Henry (Kristoffer Polaha), and bratty stepdaughter all there to make things more complicated, especially when Bridget’s FBI handler Agent Victor Machado (Nestor Carbonell) starts sniffing around.

There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Much of it is not good. The pilot works incredibly hard to shoehorn in a tremendous amount of plot, but strangely, at times, it still manages to feel slow and ponderous, perhaps because Bridget-as-Siobhan spends an inordinate amount of time staring at herself in various mirrors. (SYMBOLISM!) It’s a pity because there is no reason the mysteries couldn’t be doled out a little more gracefully over time, which would serve to give the plot longer legs and allow for better characterization in the pilot, as this race to include every imaginable plot twist means characterization suffers most of all. Gellar is particularly hindered by this choice, as she has to do the most character work here to differentiate between the twins, but the script barely gives her the chance, leaving Siobhan and Bridget to be mainly differentiated by a severe hairstyle (Siobhan) and a slightly sarcastic sense of humor (Bridget).

Most glaringly, Bridget’s character motivation suffers, making everything feel far more plot-driven than it needs to be. Why exactly does she run away? It’s frustratingly unsubstantiated. She casually tells Agent Machado she’s scared, yet it all feels like she does it because the script demands it, not because of anything established in the pilot. Siobhan is even more of a cipher, although this seems to be a purposeful choice as the mystery behind her character’s motivations is set up as one of the main mysteries of the series. Still, cipher or no, Gellar doesn’t have enough opportunity to make her feel like a fully realized, differentiated character from Bridget. This may perhaps come in time, but it is troubling nonetheless considering how essential the twin conceit is to the show. Gellar is a very effective actress when given the correct material, so if the writers tailor the character to her strengths, good things could happen. If not, well, let’s just say it would be a colossal waste of a decent talent, but it wouldn’t be the first time this happened in television history.

Despite these faults, there are plenty of reasons to return, especially since it’s so hard to judge a show like this on the pilot alone. The tone is attempting to be a sort of CW-meets-noir but comes off as more Lifetime-movie noir, which will undoubtedly drive many people crazy, but I actually found this rather fun and almost endearing in its lack of subtlety. As a rabid consumer of all things Lifetime Movie Network, if you condensed Ringer’s mystery into a two-hour movie I can tell you it would likely be the best thing ever to air on the network—and yes, I’m including Mother, May I Sleep With Danger? here. Take that as you will. There’s a place on television for a pulpy, twisty, madcap mess of a series, and it will be interesting to see if Ringer fills that void or becomes something else altogether, for better or for worse.

As for Gellar, her performance in the pilot may not be perfect, but there is no doubt she’s an actress suited to be a television star, far more than she ever was suited for film. Watching her weave her way through this complicated mess of a plot could be a heck of a lot of fun, especially if the writers tone the scripts more to her strengths and add a bit more humor to her role.

Finally, although the excessive plot churn in the pilot wasn’t ideal, it did present a multitude of questions I am genuinely curious to find out the answers to, which in this type of show is really all you need to keep your viewers coming back for more. What is Siobhan up to? Why is her marriage the way it is? How will Bridget keep up the charade? What caused the sisters’ estrangement? Why does Siobhan only have one hairstyle? Here’s hoping the answers are delivered with a bit more skill and grace than the questions.

Todd: While I can certainly appreciate the need for a TV show that attains some level of “so bad it’s good” grandeur, I just don’t foresee Ringer becoming that for anyone but the most hardcore Gellar fans. There’s probably a fun, goofy soap buried in all of this, but the pilot feels so dreary and, sadly, arbitrary that it never takes flight, even as camp. (Bridget’s decisions never make a damn bit of sense, logically speaking.) Gellar puts on her best serious acting face, but she’s never been terribly well-suited to drama (when not directed by Buffy creator Joss Whedon), and Ringer wastes one of her most potent weapons: the ability to deliver jokes deftly and quickly. If Bridget-as-Siobahn made a single joke about how ridiculous the whole situation was, it was cut from the too-grave, leaden pilot.

And that’s a problem because this series is very much on Gellar’s shoulders. There’s an able supporting cast backing her up here, with Gruffudd and Carbonell particularly turning in decent work. (Polaha, for his part, mostly seems confused and lost; he’s an actor better suited to quippery as well.) But the scenes where Gellar tries to play Bridget and Siobahn are just laughably written and poorly acted, as though no one involved in the show grasped that neither of these characters were two separate people. I know that much of the world has high hopes for this, based solely on who’s in the lead, but Ringer is not just awful; it’s also deathly dull.

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