TV Review: The CW's 'Ringer'
New Sarah Michelle Gellar drama has identity issues of its own
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Part of me likes to think that in 1955, Alfred Hitchcock could have taken the premise for The CW's "Ringer" -- icy blonde dopplegangers, infidelities, double-crosses and attempted murder -- and made a classic suspense yarn. Grace Kelly clearly would have played the twins. Cary Grant or James Stewart would have played the husband. James Mason or Raymond Burr would have played the cheating lover. Critics would still hail it as a classic.
Part of me likes to think that in 1982, Brian DePalma could have taken the premise for "Ringer" and made a piece of perverse operatic schlock (in the best way possible), all Hitchcockian flourishes through a funhouse mirror of erotic obsessions. Nancy Allen would have played the twins. Some really wooden, blonde pretty boy as the husband. John Travolta as the brooding boyfriend. Auteurist critics would have a soft spot for it, but they'd probably admit it was no "Blow Out" or "Carrie."
The 1991 version of "Ringer" would have been written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Paul Verhoven and it would have been straight-up exploitation. Sharon Stone would have played the twin sisters, Michael Douglas would have been the duped husband and, for absolutely no good reason, there would be an incestuous make-out scene. Chances are good that it would have sucked, but the VHS would have been a cherished possession passed around by teenage boys and eventually transfered to the Internet in loving HD by the gang at Mr. Skin.
Those are all imaginary versions of "Ringer," of course.
The real "Ringer" is an exposition-heavy soap opera developed with half-in/half-out conviction through the CBS pipeline, but then shuffled off to The CW. Officially, CBS executives have said that the network just didn't have room for "Ringer" and the opportunity to give this shiny bauble to sister network The CW was too great to pass up. The reality is that "Ringer" would have been a disaster on CBS. Its heavily serialized structure would have stood out like a sore thumb, its demos would have skewed uncomfortably young and even if CBS were to make an exception for a totally off-brand show, the Tiffany Network wouldn't make that exception for a subpar pilot.
And "Ringer" is, alas, disappointingly subpar. I mentioned those fake versions of "Ringer" because, at least to me, they illustrate a point. If you're a student of cinema, you knew from my description *exactly* what each of those "Ringer" iterations would feel like. If you're going to do something as loopy as "Ringer," you have to have a voice. You have to have a certainly of purpose. This is ludicrous stuff and there are many different correct ways to handle it. So I'm not saying I disliked the pilot for "Ringer" because it wasn't what Hitchcock or DePalma or Verhoven would have done. That'd be stupid. I disliked the pilot for "Ringer" because no two aspects of its production seem to be on the same page. Writers Jon Liebman and JoAnne Colonna aren't doing the same thing as director Richard Shepard. The composer isn't doing the same thing as the effects supervisor or the costume designer. And nearly every member of the sturdy cast is on a different page, including star Sarah Michelle Gellar, who may be on a different page from herself.
So I can tell you exactly what a trio of fake versions of "Ringer" might be, but after multiple viewings of the real "Ringer" pilot, I don't know what it's trying to be, only that it isn't succeeding.
More details after the break...
Let's see how well and quickly I can summarize the "Ringer" plot: Bridget (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a recovering drug addict and former stripper (and more) now holed up in a Wyoming hotel waiting to testify against a vicious Native American mobster. She's got a federal agent (Nestor Carbonell) watching over her body and a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor (Mike Colter) warding off her personal demons, but it isn't enough. So Bridget runs off to see her estranged sister Siobhan (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a Manhattan socialite with a chiseled husband (Ioan Gruffudd) and a perfect life of apartment-hopping and charity galas. Bridget and Siobhan have a dark and sad past, but they seem ready to make amends when... Siobhan goes missing and Bridget is forced to learn that her Perfect Sister's Perfect Life isn't so perfect.
If you happen to watch ABC Family's "Lying Game" -- which may actually end up being the truly representative 2011 version of "Ringer" -- you already know what Bridget has to do and you know it's difficult. In fact, if you watched the "Lying Game" pilot, you already know several of the specific things that will cause complications for Bridget, details of Siobhan's life that just never came up in casual conversation.
For the purposes of the pilot, "Ringer" is invested only in simple and superficial issues of duality. Because of Bridget's background, we're supposed to pretend like she's the Bad Egg, even though so far as we know, she's doing a lot of right things. Conversely, we're supposed to guess that because Siobhan is rich, she's the Good Egg, or at least the Successful Egg. And then we're supposed to have our expectations reversed?
But there's a problem: Bridget and Siobhan don't just look alike because they're played by the same actress. They talk alike and behave alike and because the situations in their life are comparably (but very differently) tense, their demeanors are weirdly similar. I get that they're identical twins, but they aren't supposed to be *this* identical. As Bridget takes on Siobhan's life, people keep saying "Who are you?" or "You seem different" or "You look skinny." Returning to the perennial "Show, don't tell" complaint, the "Ringer" pilot dedicates a lot of dialogue to people telling Bridget-as-Siobhan how she's become different, but the introduction of Siobhan-as-Siobhan is so cursory that other than determining that Bridget has a sarcastic sense of humor that Siobhan lacks, we only know what we're told.
It's a bad position for Gellar to be put in. You figure she thought, "I'm playing a character and her twin sister, that's gonna be fun!" but in the pilot, she's mostly playing Bridget, but even when she's playing Siobhan and Bridget-as-Siobhan, they're all interchangeably stressed out and harried. It's three characters, but it's a cumulatively one-note. I have no doubt that flashbacks and various twists are going to eventually let Gellar show all sorts of colors (or at least will attempt to), but the job of the pilot should be to give some flavor to these two women, rather than just giving in to the brittleness that have characterized so many of Gellar's recent performances. The script has an over-investment in twists that aren't all that twisty and surprises aren't all that surprising and all that clumsy scaffolding comes at the expense of any sort of character depth at all.
Gellar may have one note to spread across three characters, but that's a smorgasbord compared to what the other actors receive. You have Nestor Carbonell, Ioan Gruffudd and Kristoffer Polaha on-hand as eye candy, but little more. Carbonell looks concerned and does little more than sigh, "Oh, that Bridget!" Gruffudd looks beleaguered and does little more than sigh, "Oh, that Siobhan!" And Polaha looks lustful and goes, "Oh, that Siobhan!" I'm utterly accepting of the idea that in a 44 minute pilot, you're accepting that characters will be loosely sketched and you'll learn more later, but the three main men in "Ringer" (Colter hardly registers and if he weren't a cast regular, you'd have no reason to think he'd ever be seen again) aren't even sketched. They'd all defined only in their inability to distinguish Bridget from Siobhan which, as we've already established, is a frustrating task since the show's main characters are only sketched out in terms of of future mysteries to be revealed.
The script is stagnant and talk-y, which leaves it to Shepard to provide energy. Instead, he provides mirrors. Mirrors everywhere. There are vanity mirrors, bathroom mirrors, closet mirrors, pocket makeup mirrors and shiny windows that might as well be mirrors. There are angled mirrors that show repeated reflections off into infinity. And when mirrors aren't available or practical as ways of underlining the pilot's issues of reflected or fragmented identity, Shepard finds vaguely oppressive alternative means. The first song heard on the soundtrack? "I Fall To Pieces." The hotel where Bridget is holed up? The Double Nickel Motel, with a logo of facing, duplicated Native American heads. What does Bridget find greeting her when she enters Siobhan's stately apartment? That would be a giant glamour shot of her twin, just one of many several pilot moments in which Gellar is forced to contemplate a picture of herself and pretend it's a stranger.
Shepard tries pulling from a few different suspense bags of tricks and naturally he goes to the bags that I mentioned at the top of this review. The pilot opens on a pull-out from Gellar's face that's mighty DePalma-esque. Some of the mirroring suggests a purposeless homage to "The Lady of Shanghai." If you were feeling ridiculously generous, you might suggest that a scene in the American Museum of Natural History was Hitchcock-esque and if you were feeling more generous still, you might try claiming that Shepard and the "Ringer" effects team intentionally utilized dismal and dated green screen work to echo certain aesthetics from a simpler time of Hollywood glamour. But there's nobody Shepard can think to borrow from that can spice up the banal conversations, particularly the banal romantic conversations, that predominate. The result, which ideally could be a stylish pastiche, is mostly a tonally inconsistent hodgepodge. The chilly and formalist references get lost or bastardized within what mostly feels like nothing so much as a bad Americanization of a Uruguayan telenovela. [Note: "Ringer" is not, at least so far as I know, based on an actual Uruguayan telenovela.]
Because "Ringer" is so invested in setting up narrative riddles to hopefully be unraveled in subsequent episodes, it'd be disingenuous to say that some of the upcoming reveals might not be entertaining and fun in a way that the pilot is not. Because the "Ringer" producers have promised that subsequent episodes will feature flashbacks and play around with time, it'd be disingenuous to say that feature episodes won't give Gellar some actual character variations to play and that the male characters won't evolve beyond over-serious eye candy, all in ways that the pilot does not. "Ringer" could find a way to stop over-playing the thematic underpinnings of its premise and just live within its world as a guilty pleasure or, with massive improvements, as a genuine pleasure. And I'll definitely be watching at least a handful more episodes, in no small part because I too am a "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan, darnit. And if improvements take place, I'll certainly take the time to blog with any modified opinions. But none of those things will make "Ringer" less of a muddled, emotionally disconnected, stylistically inconsistent mess.
"Ringer" premieres tonight (September 13) at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.