As the new fall season approached, there were few shows I was more eager to see than Ringer and Revenge. Both promised to be the sort of drama that I usually sink my teeth into - more serious than something like Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives, but more escapist than The Sopranos or The Good Wife. As an added bonus, each one starred one of my favorite "former girls of the WB." Revenge was headlined by former Everwood ingenue Emily VanCamp, while Ringer was the comeback vehicle for onetime Buffy the Vampire Slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Interestingly, both series featured the lead characters passing themselves off as someone they were not. In Revenge, Amanda Clarke returns to the Hamptons for revenge on the people who destroyed her father's life and reputation 17 years earlier. Having assumed the name "Emily Thorne," Amanda uses her amassed fortune and insanely detailed plans to take down her father's betrayers one-by-one.
Ringer, on the other hand, as Gellar playing identical twins. One has married into wealth, while naturally the other one is a stripper on the run from the mob boss she was meant to testify against. The wealthy twin Siobhan disappears soon after meeting with her sister - a sister none of her friends know about. Thus, the poor sister, Bridget, decides to take her place, only to find that her sister's seemingly envious life is full of its own tension and drama.
Now that we're about a half-dozen or so episodes into each series, it's clear that Revenge has pulled way ahead of Ringer, not just in the ratings, but in critical buzz and in fan reaction. Revenge has been one of the better received new shows this year, while Ringer is viewed mostly as a disappointment. To be fair, Ringer has shown incremental improvement creatively week-to-week, even if it still clearly has a way to go.
But what is Revenge doing right that Ringer is doing wrong?
One thing that strikes me about the two shows is that Revenge employs a greater variance of tone. I know I've spoken in the past about the value of tonal consistency, lest your script feels disjointed or unbalanced. Still, there's something to be said for a little variety in tone. Think of it like how a counter-harmony compliments the lead singer in a song, or how a song's bridge offers some relief from the main verses of the melody. (And as I know very little about music, that's how far I'll take that analogy.)
Ringer is so tonally consistent that it's almost a mono-tone. The show seems to be striving for a noir tone, but it takes itself so damn seriously that it sucks any potential fun out of the premise. As the concept has the potential to be goofy, I can almost understand why the producers would work so hard to ground it. The problem is that it leaves the actors with only a few notes they can play. Gellar, Ioan Gruffudd, and Kristopher Polaha have all shown their range on past projects, and there's ample evidence that they've got a gift for comic timing. Unfortunately, there's no chance for any of them to have any fun with the morose characters and the situations they find themselves in.
Contrast that with Revenge. Though Emily's mission of vengeance provides the show with its spine, there's been a bit of levity in pretty much every episode. Gabriel Mann's Nolan character is an effective sidekick for Emily, being the only one who knows who she is. He's eager to help out, but at least at first, she resents his butting in. His snide, sarcastic attitude tends to steal nearly every scene he's in and he's often used to puncture the pretension of some of the other characters.
It doesn't stop there. Both Revenge and Ringer feature storylines focused on teen characters. In Ringer, the story of Siobhan's step-daughter so far has ended up being an excuse for greater melodrama. She's been thrown out of her prep school over drug use and has some trouble fitting in at public school. Tonally, it's no relief from the melodrama of Bridget's life.
In contrast, Revenge treats its two teenage characters - Charlotte (Krista B. Allen) and Declan (Conor Paolo) - as the two innocents in the next of vipers that is the Hamptons. She's the rich girl and he's the working class guy from the wrong side of the tracks. While that's hardly a dynamic dripping with originality, the two actors manage to make the budding romance a bit cute and endearing. It works because it doesn't feel like everything else in the show - and it rarely takes up a disproportionate part of the episode.
The other difference in tone is that Revenge is often all about how Emily gets the upper hand and takes someone down. There's a vicarious thrill for the audience in seeing someone get what's coming to them. Ringer never has that release. Bridget never gets to win - nothing EVER seems to go right for her. Week after week, the show seems to be an exercise in making Bridget miserable.
From a dramatic standpoint it makes sense to continually challenge your character. There's that old saw about the way to write good drama is "Act One - get your character stuck up in a tree. Act Two - Throw rocks at them." If the rocks seem to be unrelenting, there's the risk that the audience will become numb to the blows. Apathy is the real enemy of drama. Revenge makes excellent use of shifts in momentum by letting Emily win, and then throwing her a few setbacks now and then.
Certainly these aren't the only reasons for the gulf in quality between the two shows. I don't think it's possible to underestimate the importance of tone, though.