We here at KSiteTV have for a long time been huge fans of The Bitter Script Reader and his blog so it’s quite exciting to have him contributing a piece to the site about what may have gone wrong for The CW’s Ringer, which concludes its first season (and likely series) on Tuesday, April 17. Enjoy!
Last fall, there were few shows I was anticipating as much as Ringer. As a long-time Buffy fan, I couldn’t have been more thrilled to see Sarah Michelle Gellar returning to television after watching her relegated to infrequent film appearances like her turn in Southland Tales.
Flash-forward to the present, where Ringer tops my list of “Biggest disappointments of the fall season.” I’d never have guessed this was possible. I was a pre-sold viewer for this. For the most part, the cast has been pretty solid. Gellar has done a fantastic job differentiating Bridget from Siobhan, to the point where the viewer can tell immediately which one she’s supposed to be playing. I’d also single out Ioan Gruffudd for giving his part significant depth and nuance even in the early weeks where the Andrew character was underwritten.
I can’t be alone in my assessment – ratings have been alarmingly low through most of its run, but particularly in recent weeks. The CW hasn’t officially canceled the series yet, but the writing is all on the wall. Not only is the network burning off all the new episodes prior to the May sweeps, but the finale’s lead-in is a rerun of 90210.
So what went wrong?
I’d say the root of the show’s issues is that it was more plot-driven than character-driven. The first hour of the show was overstuffed with plot as it tried to establish a lot of moving parts. (Bridget’s on the run from a mobster trying to kill her! Her twin seems to commit suicide and Bridget replaces her! Bridget finds out her sister was cheating on her! FBI agent is hunting Bridget! Someone tries to kill Bridget, but actually is after Siobhan! Siobhan’s not dead!) With so much to take in, the show barely has time to develop Bridget’s character and use her growth as the engine for the series.
See, all these plot mechanics? They should really just be the MacGuffin. This isn’t a show about a woman hiding from the mob while pretending to be her twin sister – anymore than Buffy was about how vampires and monsters terrorize a small California town. Buffy was really a show about how “high school was hell” and the monsters were often metaphors to allow the characters to confront some deeper aspect of that experience.
In the same vein, Ringer really should be a show about identity and redemption. Bridget has a lot of mistakes to atone for and in taking on someone else’s life, she’s finds a chance to move past her own mistakes and even forgive herself for them. I’m huge on shows about identity and there is so much potential in the idea of someone replacing her own twin and living their life better than the original. Unfortunately Ringer has been so preoccupied with piling twist over twist and stuffing each episode with plot, that we rarely get those deeper moments that resonate.
After almost an entire season, does anyone really care at all about Bodaway, the mobster hunting Bridget? If his name wasn’t in every “previously on Ringer,” would you even remember it? Personally, I feel zero tension and interest in Bodaway. He’s just there as a contrivance to get Bridget on the run. No matter how many flashbacks to the mobsters in the strip club where Bridget once worked, it became increasingly hard to work up any excitement about this storyline.
But what if they had just had Bridget kill an abusive lover in self-defense. In her panic, she runs to her sister for help, things play out mostly as they did before. That way, you can still have the possible murder investigation motivating law enforcement to hunt down Bridget. I’m not the biggest fan of Agent Machado, and I think that character might have been best served by being recurring only a few times a season. (Even The Fugitive didn’t use Lt. Gerard in every episode.)
Another major issue was the tone. It was a gamble for the show to attempt a slower, more noir-ish feel. That’s a hard note to sustain week-after-week, and eventually the tone became monotone. I’ve talked about this before on my own blog, (http://thebitterscriptreader.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-is-revenge-kicking-ringers-ass.html) where I noted the contrast in tones between Ringer and another show it was compared to a lot, Revenge. In brief, Revenge is often a dark show, but it makes good use of its comic relief characters, and even knows when to have the more serious characters lighten the mood. There’s a balance there that doesn’t exist on Ringer, where the writers labor week after week to make Bridget’s life suck even more. The melodrama really needed to be pulled back.
The writing may have tried to compensate for these issues by upping the pace, but all the plot in the world doesn’t matter if the audience isn’t emotionally invested in the characters. Smaller stories might have given the characters more room to breathe. Worse, stories like the scheme masterminded by Catherine often just took up space. The fake-rape/lawsuit storyline was a blatant rip-off from Wild Things, and in the end was pretty pointless because Andrew managed to get his money back by blackmailing his ex. The story didn’t do much for Juliet’s character either. (Yes, it divided her from her mother, but her mother only became a part of the story after the fake-rape.)
And let’s not forget the Siobhan pregnancy – though it seems like the writers did. It’s a little absurd that Siobhan is probably far enough along to be showing, yet it’s been a major plot point in recent weeks that she is able to pass herself off as Bridget-as-Siobhan and no one notices.
With regard to Siobhan, in retrospect it feels like a misstep that the show revealed at the end of the pilot that she was still alive. Perhaps the strategy was to front-load that reveal as an enticement to the network, essentially saying, “Hey, isn’t this a great twist?” However, that twist probably should have been cut from the aired version, with the viewers left in the dark about her fate until much later in the season. It would have left the writing staff with a hole card to play later, rather than blowing it all upfront. (This isn’t unheard of. The original pilot for Heroes ended with Mohinder coming face-to-face with Sylar – though the actual series wouldn’t have any of the characters confront Sylar until much later in the season.)
Imagine if the first nine episodes or so were more focused on the difficulties Bridget faces in stepping into her sister’s life. Each episode should have been more standalone and driven by some inner conflict in Bridget herself. Then perhaps she could have done something that upsets Siobhan, which brings the presumed-dead sister back to New York for revenge. Thus, with the audience more invested in Bridget’s life as Siobhan, the show’s emotional stakes would have been stronger for it.
It’s also likely that the Bridget/Henry relationship could have been handled better. Kristoffer Polaha proved on Life Unexpected that he has a lot of charm and charisma, but here he was saddled with a bleak character who rarely got to display those traits. What they had here didn’t work, and a different direction might have played better. If Siobhan loved Henry, then Bridget shouldn’t feel anything for him. What if Bridget found herself being a better friend to Gemma than Siobhan was? What if Henry was played as more of a bad guy who was willing to torpedo both relationships just to possess Siobhan?
For that matter, it might have been better to make Henry completely unattached, thus making him the antagonist in the initial stretch of episodes. Maybe he and Siobhan had plans to run away together and when she backs out, he’s ready to expose their affair just as retaliation for dumping him. It opens the door to making Henry more interesting and that whole conflict more urgent. As a result, Henry could have merely been a recurring character, used to fuel the initial stretch of episodes and then taken off canvas once he ran his course.
In a perfect world, there would have been an opportunity for the writers to react what worked and what didn’t and change course to reflect that. Regrettably, it appears that so many plots were put into motion early on that it soon became difficult to simplify things without flat-out dropping storylines mid-stream. I admit, I have the benefit of hindsight here, but my advice to any budding TV writers is to remember that character – not plot – is what will sustain a series in the long run. There’s much to be learned from Ringer‘s missteps, and I only hope that all involved are able to move on to stronger pursuits.
You can read more from the Bitter Script Reader at Blogspot.