The premiere of "Ringer" (The CW, Tuesday 9 PM/8 central) reminded me of a warning issued by one of my film production teachers back in college: Don't supply critics with clubs to beat you with. This drama offers one in its opening scene, a flash-forward that shows a well-dressed Manhattan socialite (Sarah Michelle Gellar) being stalked and then attacked in a loft by a masked, crowbar-toting intruder. As the man strangles her, she cries "You have the wrong girl!"; cut to black, roll opening logo. It's a strong start for this series about an ex-stripper and recovering addict who assumes her rich twin sister's identity. Unfortunately, the hour misses one great opportunity after another, then crumbles before your eyes. The aesthetic nightstick in that opening scene is the song that starts to play when the cowering heroine accidentally bumps into a boom box and clicks the power button: Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces."
"Ringer" falls apart much less compellingly than the narrator of Cline's classic, and that's a shame. I was rooting for Gellar, an appealing star cast against type. Her character, Bridget Kelly, is miles away from the title character of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", not a self-starting, wisecracking action heroine, but a troubled blank slate reminiscent of the depressive lovelies that Alfred Hitchcock used to build movies around. Bridget is damaged, wary and somewhat introverted. She's also the key witness in the trial of a feared criminal who murdered his own brother; after an early sequence of Bridget confessing her misdeeds in a Narcotics Anonymous group, she's escorted to her temporary home at the Double Nickel motel by Agent Machado (Nestor Carbonell), the FBI agent assigned to protect and shadow her. She slips out of custody to go to a pre-arranged meeting with her estranged twin, Siobhan Martin (Gellar again), and -- spoiler alert, in case you haven't read the network's own synopsis or the Entertainment Weekly cover story about Gellar -- assumes her identity when Siobhan disappears during a boat ride. (Duh, gee, yuh think she's really dead?)
This is an OK start for a melodrama. Unless you're a sociopath, trying to sustain an elaborate lie for even ten minutes can be a sickeningly intense experience. By impulsively taking over her sister's identity -- which includes a troubled marriage (to Ioan Gruffud's Andrew Martin) and an equally troubled affair with a struggling writer (Kristoffer Polhana) who's married to Siobhan's best friend (Tara Summers) -- Bridget has entered a massively complex deception that she will have to sustain for the rest of her life. To make an already tense predicament unbearable, the sisters hadn't spoken in years. This means Bridget has no real sense of who her sister was, much less what sort of twisted soap-opera shenanigans she might have gotten herself into. People are constantly coming up to Bridget and alluding to fraught situations that Siobhan is intimately familiar with, forcing Bridget to improvise cryptic, noncommittal responses. It's like a network series version of that dream that just about everyone has had in some form -- the one where you're informed that you're the lead actor in a play that opens tonight and you haven't memorized a word of the script.
"Ringer" capitalizes on none of this. Series producers Pam Veasy ("CSI: New York," "The District"), Peter Traugott ("Samantha Who?") and Richard Shephard ("Ugly Betty"), who also directed the pilot, never quite settle on a tone, nor do they commit to any particular attitude toward Bridget. Gellar seems stranded in a purposefully nonspecific part; I like her a lot, but when I mentally list adjectives that describe her screen persona, "mysterious" is not among them. This role needed an actress with mystery, and danger, and heat -- somebody who could suggest hidden hunger, opportunism, kinkiness and cruelty; a touch of the film noir heroine, perhaps, or the Hitchcock blonde. The series also needed a less boring lead character. The heroine is supposed to be a woman who once lived life on the edge, but there's no trace of that dangerous spark onscreen; the way she's written (and played) she seems like the sort of woman who'd be content to stay at home curled up in front of the TV with her cat, eating vanilla yogurt and watching "Ringer." The promiscuous mirror imagery and laughably bad digital effects shots of Gellar and Gellar seem like attempts to add depth to a script that doesn't have any. (Even though the Gellar characters are dressed and coiffed very differently, there were moments where I had to run the DVD back to remind myself which character was speaking.)
It's as if somebody involved with the production decided that the most important thing was to make sure that viewers found both of Gellar's characters "likable," which is Hollywood code for nonthreatening. The heroine's first name is the same as that of another character in a noir-inflected story about identity theft, John Dahl's great 1994 thriller "The Last Seduction", starring Linda Fiorentino as a chain-smoking, man-eating, hip-swinging seductress who was so smart and so ruthless that she could crush even the most formidable adversaries like Dixie cups. "Ringer" could have used a dash of Dahl and Fiorentino, or a touch of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" or "Marnie" or -- to push things in a more flagrantly absurd direction -- a dash of the "Fletch" films, in which a smart-ass hero cooked up whopping lies on the spot in scene after scene, then had to reconcile them later when one or more of the people he'd lied to showed up in the same room. I don't know if any of these approaches might have made "Ringer" compelling, but man, this series desperately needs something, anything. It's an oxymoron: a show about identity theft with no personality.