Probably not. Sarah Michelle Gellar’s new show Ringer, premiering tonight, became a little bit famous over the summer for one thing: the pilot screener that circulated featured some really terrible green-screen effects. Including a scene on a boat where the background was so obviously fake it would have embarrassed Rock Hudson and Doris Day. The special effects have undoubtedly been fixed by now, so we won’t get that element of fun. But I almost wished they would leave it in, and make the show a tribute to cheesy ’50s melodrama movies, including their obvious process shots. It would be more entertaining that way.
(Update: Apparently the version that aired tonight still had the bad green screen in place. So we can consider that, at least, a highlight of the evening.)
Instead, the show is going for a more serious tone, and not all that successfully. As part of that attempted seriousness, they’ve deprived Gellar – famous for her skill with a wisecrack – of much opportunity to be funny. But watching the pilot struggle with the tone was in some ways more interesting than the story: it was an example of a serious show trying very hard to avoid tumbling into farce. The story is absolutely one that would be a farce if it were played slightly differently. Most of the pilot focuses on Gellar posing as her twin sister, discovering all the secrets and lies she’s now involved in. Which means we get a succession of scenes where she has to make stuff up on the fly, play along with embarrassing situations that she’s discovering for the first time. Scenes where, with just a slight shift in emphasis, it would be intentionally funny to watch her pretend to be someone else (Joss Whedon had these types of scenes a few times on Buffy and Angel, and they were usually played for laughs) and it would be even funnier that so few people seem to catch on.
Playing a mistaken identity story seriously is not impossible or unprecedented, of course. But the over-careful pilot may have something to do with the writers and director and performers treading very cautiously to avoid being funny (the presence of the guy from Suddenly Susan just adds to that danger). Too many jokes, any winking at the premise, would bring the whole thing crashing down. It’s a bit like Dollhouse had to (at first, anyway) tone down some of the creator’s trademark humour to keep from trivializing its premise. The normal practice, post-Sopranos, post-Buffy post-Breaking Bad, has been for shows to tweak the crazier elements of their premises or play them for laughs, but then turn around and show that they’re deadly serious about other things. (It’s the Bonnie and Clyde method, which Pauline Kael described as a journey from “we’re only kidding” to “and you thought we were only kidding.”) But some of today’s shows are more earnest than that and less inclined toward post-modernism or giving us an “out” on certain aspects of the premise. Ringer seems pretty committed to its own identity as an over-the-top melodrama.
Now, will that work? It didn’t in the pilot, at least for me. I feel like the pilot wasn’t committed enough to that florid melodramatic style: it seemed to be holding back in the acting, the settings, everything except those goofy symbolic mirror shots. A full-blown, shameless Aaron Spelling approach – melodrama without irony or shame – might suit the material better. Or it could go the other way and become a smarter drama where there’s no danger of becoming goofy. The pilot felt caught in the middle.