That CBS is bringing Thomas Harris‘ Silence of the Lambs heroine out of the backwoods of West Virginia and into your living rooms is hardly surprising. Clarice Starling is, after all, one of the greatest characters in movie history. Unfortunately, that means that the network’s new drama Clarice has its work cut out for it. No one is expecting the show to live up to the original film, which is one of just three to sweep the Oscars, but if it could carve out its own identity within the Lambs universe the way that NBC’s Hannibal did, surely it would be considered a worthy entry in the larger franchise. As it stands after three episodes, I can’t help but be disappointed, though series star Rebecca Breeds does an impressive job given the iconic shoes she’s asked to fill here.
Set in 1993, Clarice picks up one year after the events in The Silence of the Lambs, which have made Starling something of a celebrity. Though the junior FBI agent remains haunted by the Buffalo Bill case, as well as her own family secrets, she remains a shining light in a world full of darkness. It’s this light that draws monsters and madmen to her, as well as colleagues who are quick to remind her that she’s a young woman working in a man’s world. She may be brave and brilliant, but she’s also vulnerable, and that makes her a liability in the eyes of the bureau.
While Clarice once again emphasizes the character’s diminutive physical stature, as she’s consistently surrounded by large men, it throws fuel on the misogynistic fire by making her superiors constantly question her state of mind. She suffers from PTSD thanks to her experience with Buffalo Bill, and has bureau-mandated therapy sessions with an antagonistic shrink (Shawn Doyle) who wields his “fit-for-duty” analysis over Clarice’s head like a weapon. Meanwhile, her direct boss, Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz) is suspicious of her from Day 1 and refuses to trust her.
You can definitely see the writers playing up that angle here. Because Buffalo Bill is a wound that will never heal until Clarice opens up about her past, she’s considered a danger to herself, and so she can’t be trusted in the field — especially since PTSD can alter her perception of events. For what it’s worth, Clarice seems quite confident in her abilities, but everyone else insists there are trust issues, and that they’re mutual. By the time Clarice calls out her own therapist for trying to gaslight her, it’s clear she has a very keen sense of self-awareness, and she knows she needs help. Does anyone know a good doctor?
Clarice hails from executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, who previously worked together on The Mummy and several of CBS’ Star Trek shows. They would not have been my first choice for this series, and I think their relative inexperience with this kind of macabre material shows. The tone of the violence seems to veer from episode to episode, though this is one network series that certainly doesn’t shy away from explicit and graphic crime scene photos. There are also some small flights of fancy, as Clarice suffers some visually-striking hallucinations such as a hand emerging from the back of a death’s head moth, or a moth emerging from her coffee. Moths are all over this show, likely to remind us of its connection to The Silence of the Lambs.
Speaking of which, Episode 1 is cleverly titled “The Silence Is Over” and it does a good job of setting up the pieces on the chessboard. After rescuing Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter) from the horror of Buffalo Bill’s basement, the girl’s mother, Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson) assigns Clarice to assist the FBI’s VICAP unit in the investigation of three murders that appear to be the work of a serial killer.
It’s a promising-enough pilot, but unfortunately, Episode 2 all but abandons that story in favor of a new assignment that finds the VICAP team deployed to Tennessee, where the FBI is laying siege against a fringe militia group known as The Statesmen. Episode 2 is where the series really stumbles, as everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow replete with sappy music.
The third episode then returns to the story set up in Episode 1, as the VICAP team interrogates the suspect they captured, hoping to uncover more about the conspiracy at the heart of his crimes. To me, there’s no question that Episode 3 should’ve been Episode 2, and Episode 2 should’ve been killed at the script stage, as it does this show no favors. It also points to a fundamental problem with Clarice — is the show serialized, or will it be more episodic? CBS’s loyal viewers may enjoy watching Clarice bust up a local prostitution ring and take down the local sheriff, but I was expecting her to match wits with monsters like Hannibal Lecter.
Even still, Breeds does a good job with what she has to work with here, and it’s certainly no easy feat to tackle a character originated by Jodie Foster, and later played by Julianne Moore. I like her accent work here, as she seems to have the West Virginia lilt down pat, and she brings a fierce determination to the role, as if the actress has as much to prove as Starling herself does.
Cudlitz is, well, a bit too unlikable for my liking. I’m sure his Paul Krendler will come around on Clarice by the end of the season, but they have a terrible rapport early on, and I think that was a miscalculation on the writers’ part. I know Paul Krendler isn’t Jack Crawford, but one of the things I loved about the original Silence of the Lambs was the respect and reverence that Crawford (Scott Glenn) had for Starling even though she was just in the Academy. At least I dug the casting of Clarice’s colleagues, who include Kal Penn, Lucca De Oliveira and a bespectacled Nick Sandow, while Atkinson (House of Cards) represents a solid fill-in for Lambs actress Diane Baker. I also enjoyed Devyn A. Tyler‘s take on Ardelia Mapp, and I’m very curious where the writers are taking the character of Catherine Martin, as it was an interesting decision to bring her into this story.
Clarice premieres Thursday, Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. on CBS, but if you’re a Silence of the Lambs fan who can’t stand the idea of a sequel playing out on network TV then you may want to keep a bottle of Chianti nearby, just in case you need a drink to wash out the bad taste this show leaves behind, no matter how good its star is.
Things just got interesting.