The Crazy Ones, CBS’s new comedy about the staff of a once-great advertising agency trying to avoid losing clients and credibility which begins airing tonight at 9PM, will get more attention for being the occasion of Robin Williams’ return to television as former ad genius Simon Roberts, than for anything else. That’s too bad, because it features an endearingly insane turn by James Wolk as Zach Cropper, a loonily promiscuous up-and-coming ad man who’s more than willing to hop into a broadcast booth to record an obscene ode to hamburgers with Kelly Clarkson to get some business. And The Crazy Ones raises a less cheerful question: why can’t television find something great for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who plays Simon’s daughter Sydney, to do?
It’s not easy to find the next thing to do after you finish an iconic performance, and Buffy Summers, the academically-disoriented blonde who discovered she’d been chosen to become the Slayer, a legendary killer of vampires and other demons, was a doozy. One of the challenges for Gellar of finding work after Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off show Angel ended their runs has to have been that Buffy was deliberately a critique of both genre fiction and the assumptions people make about young, blonde women. The problem with shattering the mold is that it can take time for the culture to build a new one around the work that you’ve done, and in the mean time, you might end up stuck.
That appears to be exactly what happened to Gellar who, after Buffy, seemed unable to find a career trajectory within the conventional offerings that still largely ruled the culture around her. She tried horror movies, a traditional patch of employment for attractive young blonde women in a way that almost seems like a surrender to pop-culture cliche, playing Karen in The Grudge movies and Joanna Mills in The Return. She did the Scooby-Doo movies with her husband, Freddie Prinze Jr., and was in The Air I Breathe, one of the many People In Disparate Circumstances Tied Together By Fate And Social Forces movies that came out after the success of Crash in 2004. Gellar returned to her roots in soap operas for a stint in All My Children, and like many a nerd icon before her, did voice work for Robot Chicken. But none of this quite added up to a skill set that Gellar was known for, a sort of movie where casting her automatically elevated the material, or a particular sort of chemistry she could bring to a story.
The two best non-Buffy projects Gellar did came before and after her run on that show, and no one’s quite captured her qualities in them, since. First, she played the villainess in the 1999 adaptation Cruel Intentions, a performance that brought out the cruelty Gellar was capable of, and that was a necessary part of her performance as Buffy as well. And while Buffy, as a character, had a somewhat ambiguous relationship to her sexuality, a relatively natural consequence of experiences that include losing your virginity to a boyfriend who immediately turns incredibly evil, having sexual passion give life to a plant that almost eats a fraternity house, and having a lot of hate-sex with a former nemesis who goes insane and tries to rape you, Kathryn Merteuil was alienated from her sexual self, but in a different way, using sex to harm and control other people, rather than for her own pleasure.
Seven years later, Gellar’s delightfully weird performance in the uderratedly fascinating mess Southland Tales, a slightly futuristic fable from Richard Kelly, was brilliant in a different way. As Krysta Now, Gellar played a porn star with a highly-honed sense of the new media age, dropping viral singles like “Teen Horniness Is Not A Crime,” hosting a webcast talk show like The View, but with a panel made up entirely of film stars, and cannily planning to sell a reality show based on her life. At the time Kelly made the movie, Krysta’s approach to stardom was nascent in the real world. Today, it’s a well-trod road. But as aggressively as Krysta managed her public life, she was also enmeshed in a strange, tender relationship with Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), an amnesiac actor whose paranoia is exacerbated by an increasingly invasive media culture, and whose mental health has been eroded partially by his role as the husband to the daughter of a powerful United States Senator. Gellar’s performance is simultaneously crass, tender, and exhausted. In a weird way, it’s as close to being Buffy as she’s ever gotten again.
If Gellar were a decade and a half younger, she might be starring in The Hunger Games, or the Mortal Instruments franchise, or any of the post-apocalyptic series with surprisingly tough female heroines that owe a debt to Buffy. I’ve written repeatedly before that one of the most exciting things about going to the movies these days is that it’s become entirely possible for girls as young as Chloe Grace Mortez to credential themselves significantly as action stars, just as Gellar did, but unlike Gellar, to expect that work that makes use of their talents will be available to them. When Hailee Steinfeld’s stealing the remake of True Grit, Jennifer Lawrence is going back and forth, repeatedly, between action roles and Oscar bait, and Saoirse Ronan can go from playing a little girl with a typewriter to a trained assassin, it’s encouraging precisely because it suggests that a new generation of actresses aren’t going to face the plight that Gellar did, of proving that they’re tremendously good, credible action actresses, and then having to choose from bad horror or supporting roles that don’t make good use of their talents. Gellar helped pry the door open so younger actresses could have more expansive careers, but it doesn’t seem to have done much to help her.
I’ve talked a lot about movies here, but Gellar’s two most recent forays into television illustrate exactly how badly her talents have been wasted by the gap between career paths she seems to have fallen into. Ringer, in which she played both halves of a set of twins, each with their own dark secrets, might have made use of some of Gellar’s Buffy skills, but it was strained by a ludicrous premise, incredibly dreadful sets, and weak supporting players for her to riff off. And most of all, it felt grim and lifeless. The gift Buffy gave Gellar wasn’t just the ability to wield a stake with aplomb: it was to let her build a character who felt tremendously alive, who was a goof, and a sweetheart, and careless, and who was completely destroyed when her mother died, and who made bad decisions, and grew from them. Treating Gellar as if she’s merely strained and desperate flattens her.
And the pilot of The Crazy Ones suggests that the show risks doing the same thing to her again. Making anyone the straight man to Robin Williams is a punishing assignment. But as Sydney, Gellar looks desperate and sad all episode, whether she’s trying to get kids trying out for a cookie commercial to react according to the script, explaining to her father that their business is in dire trouble, or belting out a song in a crowded restaurant for Kelly Clarkson’s amusement, debasing herself for the sake of her business. Gellar looks strained and tired, and she’s the person in the pilot with the fewest jokes. There’s no question that Gellar can be an excellent dramatic actress–she’s one of the few people really elevated by working with Joss Whedon, who has a decidedly odd track record–but she’s more than that, too. It’s incredibly sad to me to see a show treat Gellar the way the industry as a whole seems to have treated her, treating her as if she’s used up because she didn’t fit any easy trajectory, rather than being inspired by her particular combination of talents.