Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Premiere of Ringer: A Review

It turns out the heavy marketing campaign for Ringer was a bit too heavy; they cannibalized and teased so much of the pilot that there was little new material left, and no surprises. Still, the pilot introduces us to the show in a deliberate and considered manner, showing us the main characters and conflicts either using logic or attempted artistry. Like most pilots there is a mix of good and bad, with neither the writers nor actors nor directors blended into a fully cohesive story.

However, there's enough to pass a verdict on whether I'll be witness to its immediate future.

Ringer opens with a nice thriller scene that was teased so much I already knew it was going to be the climax of the first episode and thus knew we were about to get a "Two Days Earlier" kind of thing. Regardless, watching Sarah Michelle Gellar in an ominously lit, beautiful and unfinished New York penthouse, hiding behind walls and under construction materials from a ski-masked aggressor is a thrill. Her obligatory accident while hiding (you can never hide successfully in a scary scene) involves her turning on the radio. A lovely oldies song comes on, and while that is a notably unoriginal soundtrack for a slasher chase scene it's also a classic one, and helps successfully create the mood of the entire opening, transitioning from thriller to straight up horror as the masked man gets his hands around her struggling throat and she cries "You've got the wrong girl!" Fade to black. Welcome to Ringer.

An opening scene for a Tuesday night TV show that involves Sarah Michelle Gellar and violence is an achingly familiar occurrence, but more on that later. Next we travel back in time to meet the main character, Bridget. And things go downhill fairly quickly. We spend pretty much the rest of the episode getting to know Bridget, and clearly we're meant to sympathize with her, if not straight up pity the poor girl with her darkly circled eyes frayed nerves. However, this is who we are actually shown: a junkie stripper, sober for a few months now but not celibate as she clearly is having casual sex with her sponsor and feeling proud of it, who witnessed a psychotic and well-connected man murder and dismember a fellow stripper, and presumably friend, of hers, but for some reason doesn't feel like testifying against him so instead she knocks out and ties up her police protection, stealing a gun, and flees to the Hamptons to reunite with her long estranged twin sister, because neither the police nor serial killers would consider tracking down her next of kin.

They even show her in the middle of an Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous session baring her soul, and it's not enough to win much affection from us. An easy, simple style of writing is to blame, with no depth or originality to give us a real character, but unfortunately the Lady Sarah is culpable too. Granted she doesn't have the best material to work with, but after some eerie Buffy mannerisms and an attempted balance between emotionally distraught and sexually liberated, you just want to get to the part of the story you know is coming, when she takes her sister's place.

Unfortunately, when Bridget and Siobhan finally interact, we are given the most awkward and unenjoyable periods of the episode. Now, I've witnessed split-screen type technology before with the same actor (Parent Trap, that episode of Buffy where there are two Xanders, plenty of times with Cylons, etc.) but for some reason it does not work here. I don't know if it's Sarah's fault, the phony and jagged dialogue, or the direction she was given, but any sisterly screen sharing comes off as terribly unnatural and destroys any suspension of disbelief the show had managed to build up to that point. (It might have helped to have Bridget be a brunette before she becomes her sister.) According to the cliches they exchange (while inside Siobhan's horribly ugly modern summer house) we are to understand that they haven't spoken in years most likely due to some horrible thing Bridget did involving someone named "Sean" (whom we later learn was a child, probably Siobhan's from a previous marriage). However Siobhan assures Bridget that she has been forgiven, that she is proud of her 12-stepping, and welcomes her into her seemingly perfect life.

Cue random scene where they decide to go out on the motorboat for a nap, and upon waking Siobhan is missing, her engagement ring sitting in an empty pill bottle. We know from promos and early descriptions that Siobhan fakes her death here, but we still get a pretty long scene of Bridget kinda-panicking and yelling her sister's name, then jumping in the ocean to find an abandoned blouse and give the director a chance to attempt a Hitchcockian water scene with a crescendo soundtrack. But Bridget doesn't drown, and Siobhan appears to have killed herself by way of pills and drowning while her visiting twin caught some shuteye. Cue commercial break.

When we get back from commercial, in a massively stupid move we are given another time jump. This story is fairly convoluted, or at least elaborate, and knowing exactly what the premise was ("one twin on the run from the law hides by assuming her privileged twin's place, only to find she has a bounty on her head as well") prepared me for the inevitably of flashbacks. Starting the episode with a portion of the climax, then going back and working up to it is a time tested technique that can be good fun. However, skipping forward in the middle of the story to watch Bridget already pretending to be Siobhan--living in her apartment, greeting her husband, etc.--then experiencing, in a flashback of what was in effect this morning, her sudden, easy decision to assume her sister's identity is quite frankly retarded.

When Bridget goes to see her sister she is terrified, on the run from the law, on the run from a murderer, a recovering addict and filled with guilt over some past mistake/tragedy. Then her sister seemingly dies, so she takes the boat back to her sister's home and grabs her sister's purse (off camera) until it drops, and upon seeing the ID, in the midst of her shock and grief, she wipes her eyes, does her hair up in a bun, stashes her stuff in a bus station locker, and heads off to her sister's life in New York. This is all told in a 30 second flashback while Bridget-as-Siobhan calls her sponsor freaking out about her identity theft. It is not really explained why she did it, other than to hide, nor why it comes so naturally to her to slip into another skin, nor even the slightest hint of the fairly interesting psychology behind such a plot development. Nope, it's just a means to an end. I get that we need Bridget to become her sister, but I don't get why we couldn't witness it real time. The tension of her first hours impersonating her sister, the fear and danger of discovery, all of this would have been heightened if we had gone through it with her rather than coming back from (horrible, loud, cheesy CW) commercials and spending a few minutes wondering if you somehow missed an entire segment.

Bad decision or not, we've now gotten to the meat of the story, with Bridget living her sister's life. We meet her husband Andrew, played by the wonderful Ioan Gruffud, who does a great version of another unoriginal character: he's a very busy rich man with an important job of some kind, a daughter from a previous marriage who is a slut and a rebel, and a wife who cheats on him and is usually nasty. However, Gruffud manages to pull off a great little scene later in the show where Siobhan's (Bridget's) new relaxed, kind attitude frankly astonishes him, and as much as he wants it to be true, it's been beaten into him over the years of his marriage that it's an act of some kind.

We also meet her best friend Gemma, who is decorating/overseeing construction on their new penthouse apartment. The actress here is strange looking, horribly dressed, and rather annoying. She doesn't serve much purpose other than proving Siobhan has at least one friend, albeit shallow, and informing us that her husband is cheating on her. Soon, in a not-in-the-least shocking twist, once again thanks to the marketing and the ubiquitous cliches, we find out that Siobhan is the one sleeping with her best friend's husband. Gasp. The husband, Henry, follows her around for awhile and they try to make it ominous, like it's a henchman of the serial killer who's tracked down Bridget and is hanging out strangely noticeable in the background, but then he tries to get some and Bridget realizes her sister had no sense of sexual decency (it's genetic.) Henry's character is such a towering cliche that later, when a phone call reveals Siobhan had recently gotten pregnant, he tells her to choose: "Him or me." To Bridget's credit, she certainly seems to have a conscience of some sort, and quickly chooses the man her sister married, though one wonders how her conscience will stand up to her continuous duplicity.

By the end she gets a call from her cuckolded BFF Gemma to meet her at night at the empty, under construction penthouse, where the opening, climactic, thriller/slasher scene unrolls yet again. Fortunately, it reminds the audience that the show is capable of some good scenes, and brings us back into it just in time. Now, personally, I have a lot of trouble watching Sarah Michelle Gellar in a violent scene while not being super strong and able to kick ass (her struggle and eventual murder in I Know What You Did Last Summer is a traumatic viewing experience that I still have not gotten over) but Bridget acquits herself admirably, struggling in a suitably tiny-female manner until a nice stiletto kick buys her some running space. He jumps on her, they fall through a wall (which takes me out of it again, because of the quote SMG gave about how they wouldn't let her do that stunt even though she wanted to) she sees her previously stashed gun, grabs it, swivels, and just murders the guy point blank. As opposed to, say, making him put his hands behind his head and answer some questions such as who he is and what he wants. Fortunately, like most professional killers, he keeps a photo of his target in his pocket with her name written in magic marker. And, as we all already know, he's after Siobhan, not Bridget.

After this murder and discovery, we get the most annoying scene of the show. We are shown Paris, France, and the not-dead Siobhan sitting on a couch by the window in a dress. She gets a call on her cell phone and a man's voice says "We have a problem." She immediately hangs up, without saying anything, and begins stroking her reflection in the glass. Honestly, she doesn't ask what the problem is, or even how big of a problem it is, or if her sister was murdered in her place as planned. She just hangs up. Considering the furnishings and her outfits, she's not particularly worried about transatlantic phone charges, but that's the only plausible explanation I can come up with. It was a rather irritating final shot.

Fade to black. Show on screen the pulsing Ringer logo with shadows and appropriate music.

Here are the good parts. I definitely give the show points for style. They've clearly worked very hard to manufacture a neo-noir, thriller, mystery type of vibe. And when the story or acting or writing takes the viewer out of that mood, which it does frequently, they bring you back soon with a soundtrack choice or a dark empty museum setting or a pulsing bass line and a violent attack. There were some flashes of a clear vision for this show and hopefully in the future they'll be bogged down less by formulaic soap elements, and take more pages from Raymond Chandler and murder mysteries and conspiracy stories.

Ioan Gruffud is talented and seems to give a depth to a character that had neither a lot of screen time nor a lot of personality. Sarah Michelle Gellar, who I love no matter what, and who was a truly spectacular actress on Buffy (you never once doubted that this tiny skinny blonde chick could bend steel with her bare hands) did not hit it out of the park on this one. In fact, she hasn't really come close yet, but there were some flashes. If she plays up the dichotomy of the sisters (one as an evil, Machiavellian, bitchy mastermind and the other as a scared, observant, resilient, reluctant hero) then hopefully their characters will become more easily distinguishable, as well as at least one of them becoming worth our sympathy.

The truth is, this pilot wasn't for us. The approximately 42 minutes of television that aired last night was the pilot they made to sell the show, to get it green lit and on the air. They got their star in most of the frames, they gave some thrills, and they gave executives a live-action version of the premise they repeated ad nauseum.

The true test of what kind of show Ringer will be? Its quality, writing, characters, excitement? The real, true pilot that will either ensure a single season series or make us fans and prove to us that it's actually worth it? That comes next week. Tuesday at 9pm, to be exact.

I'll be there, waiting for the actual premiere.


  1. From previous posts I know you're a big SMG fan so kudos on giving such a measured, honest review. I haven't seen the pilot yet but I'm looking forward to it. I think the show will be a grower.

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