Ringer: The Halving of Sarah Michelle Gellar

Eight long years after Buffy the Vampire Slayer slayed its last, beloved heroine Sarah Michelle Gellar returned to the airwaves last night in The CW's Ringer, a soap opera noir that, in some ways true to its theme, only hit half the right notes.

Sarah Michelle Gellar is a curious creature. She's got those wounded sparrow features that, when she's giving a butt a good kick or skulking around cemeteries in leather, seem defiantly small, as if she's saying, "Yeah, I'm tiny, what of it?" That's why she worked so well on Buffy; she had the outer delicacy of a Victorian ingenue but the surprising grit of an action hero within. There was a pleasing duality there that let you safely worry for Buffy Summers. She'd get into scrapes and all would seem dire, but secretly you knew that she'd come out swinging.

So it was weird then to watch Ringer, a show all about duality (Gellar plays a set of twins with wildly different lives), last night and find her so singular and weak and alone. The bulk of the pilot episode dealt with Bridget Cafferty, a young woman in addiction recovery who is set to testify against a Wyoming mob boss (what?) but instead decides to flee to the East Coast and look up her sister, the wealthy ice queen Siobhan Martin. Then, naturally, an unfortunate series of events occurs and it looks as though Siobhan is dead. So, because why not, Bridget decides to pretend to be Siobhan, putting on her fancy clothes and enjoying a limo from the Hamptons to a sprawling Manhattan apartment complete with stiff British husband (the consistently unembarrassed Ioan Gruffudd) and bratty boarding school stepdaughter. It's not a perfect life, but it's a safer one than Bridget knew in the crime-ridden wilds of Wyoming (again, what?). But, of course, nothing is as it seems and Bridget quickly discovers that her estranged sister's life was anything but the glamorous idyll she thought it was.

First off, Siobhan has been cheating on her husband with her best friend's hubby, a dinkish fellow who professes to love Siobhan, though neither seem quite ready to leave their spouses. Gellar and the show's writers then have to do the tiresome work of having a character guess her way along when of course she's supposed to know everything already — this is her life, after all! To that end, Siobhan's paramour kisses Bridget clandestinely at some sort of gala at the Museum of Natural History and, while initially shocked and repulsed, Bridget/Siobhan has to play along, doing the nimble, on-the-spot guess work of many a character in a pretender comedy (Ringer is basically Dave with a slightly higher body count). It's an irksome kind of gymnastics, and I look forward to the show eventually moving past it, to the point where people stop looking at Gellar with puzzled expressions saying "You seem different." I mean, has anyone ever said in their life to anyone that they see on a fairly regular basis, "You seem different"? I'd imagine it would be really freaky experience, rather than an off-hand remark made while dressing for dinner.

And therein lie some of the show's problems. It's soapy and silly and slighty aware of that (the hilariously awful special effects, if you can call them that, when Gellar and Gellar were on the motorboat where Siobhan disappeared had to be a self-aware nod to cheesy Hitchcock fake driving scenes), but while that should all make for a relatively buoyant show, the whole thing just feels so heavy. The central conceit of the show, Bridget fumbling along in Siobhan's life and unwittingly uncovering mysteries, demands enough juggling and knot tying in its own right that to add all the other stuff — murder, pregnancy, adultery, a rebellious teen — to the mix just feels a bit much. Ringer occasionally hints at what could be a more delicate and streamlined show — a recovering addict steps into a brand new yet preexisting life and must simply learn how to navigate that — but then it piles all your typical CW multi-plot filler on top of it and squishes the entire thing. This show should be fizzy with a slight undercurrent of dark intrigue. As it stood last night, it's a thick slog through plot with only occasional moments for character and "Isn't this silly?" levity.

Still, it's good to see Gellar back. I don't quite like her as the frail and fractured Bridget, but I have hopes for her as Siobhan (oh, yeah, turns out sis is not quite as dead as she seems). Gellar, a Daytime Emmy Award winner at eighteen, has a soapy flair for that kind of role, so I'm encouraged by that, but if the main action continues to heavily focus on Bridget-as-Siobhan, I'm afraid I, and others, will soon tire of all the wide-eyed confusion. Buffy has at least one sturdy supporting actor to rely on in the debonair and shadowy Nestor Carbonell, here playing the FBI agent initially tasked with keeping Bridget safe until her testimony, and now faced with tracking her down and contending with Siobhan (who, of course, is actually Bridget). He's an appealing actor doing the best he can with a fairly flat role. Gellar, on the other hand, is doing the work of two whole people, but really only minimally succeeding in the role of one.