Sarah Michelle Gellar: The return of an actress with real bite

The star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is back on TV. Can she regain her cult status?

Bridget Kelly has problems. She's the only witness to a murder, a former stripper with six months of sobriety behind her and an FBI agent on her back. Siobhan Martin also has problems: a loveless marriage, an obsessive lover, and more secrets than one society wife can possibly hope to hide. Not at all coincidentally the two women are also long-estranged twin sisters and when Siobhan apparently dies, Bridget seizes the chance to hide in plain sight.

Ringer, which started in the US two weeks ago and airs on Sky Living this week, aims to bring psychological noir to a generation raised on the glossy fluff of Gossip Girl. As such, it's not without flaws. The plot is occasionally overstuffed and too many of the male characters seem content to brood mysteriously while the light catches their sleekly chiselled jaws.

Yet those flaws are rendered almost irrelevant by the fact that this drama from Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder marks Sarah Michelle Gellar's return to the small screen after an eight-year absence. For, lest we forget, Gellar, who takes on the central roles of Bridget and Siobhan, was the Queen of the Small Screen from 1997-2003, playing the lead role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer before supposedly heading off to Hollywood glory when the Joss Whedon series came to an end.

In reality, that glory never quite materialised. For some reason Hollywood was unable to pin down the combination of strength and vulnerability that made the former Buffy Summers so great on television. Gellar's 1999 turn as teen bitch Kathryn in Cruel Intentions remains her best performance on the big screen.

That this is the case is largely down to the roles she was offered. Instead of the strong female parts she might have expected, Gellar found herself starring in a couple of forgettable horror films (she dropped her agents, William Morris, after their president, David Wirtschafter, reportedly described her as "nothing at all" until she appeared in 2005's The Grudge), making two Scooby Doo movies and appearing in the odd curiosity such as Richard Kelly's critically panned Southland Tales.

Gellar, now 34, has admitted that for much of the immediate post-Buffy period she had other things on her mind. "I was burned out after Buffy," she said at Ringer's US launch event. "It was exhausting... I was 18 on the pilot and 24 and married [to Freddie Prinze Jr] when we finished. That show was my life. I just wanted to live and travel."

She also found herself increasingly disillusioned by the film process. "I was spoiled by Buffy because I thought that's the way it was everywhere and it's not. I thought to myself that I wouldn't get stuck playing the girlfriend or the wife, but those sort of roles turned out to be rare. Then I started to watch Damages and realised that there were all these amazing female-driven shows on television. So I found myself waiting for the right opportunity."

While Ringer is not quite the groundbreaking noir that some hoped it might be, Gellar remains a compelling presence. Her Buffy was relatable not only because of the actress's sense of timing (honed as a teen on the US daytime soap All My Children) but because of her ability to say as much with her eyes as her voice. No matter what Whedon threw at her – mute demons, singing devils, vampires with unbelievably bad British accents – Gellar always convinced you that she was a real high-school girl who just happened to be dealing with some highly unreal circumstances.

She remains similarly believable in Ringer, whether playing the vulnerable Bridget or the more Machiavellian Siobhan, while her complex relationship with Ioan Gruffudd (who plays Siobhan's wealthy husband) has promising hints of trouble to come. And it's those darker moments that make Ringer worth sticking with: it might not be the second coming that Buffy Summers fans were hoping for, but it's solid, escapist fun.

'Ringer' begins on Thursday at 8pm on Sky Living

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