'Clarice': 'Silence of the Lambs' FBI Agent Doesn't Quite Get Her Due

'Clarice': 'Silence of the Lambs' FBI Agent Doesn't Quite Get Her Due

02/08/2021

Two long shadows hang over Clarice, the new CBS drama following FBI agent Clarice Starling in the aftermath of her showdown with serial killer Buffalo Bill. The first shadow is cast by The Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 film that swept the top five Academy Awards categories that year, including a Best Actress Oscar for Jodie Foster as Clarice. The second shadow comes from Hannibal, the NBC drama about the other, far more iconic murderer from Silence, cannibal psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter.

Thirty years later, Silence remains the undisputed masterpiece of the serial-killer-drama genre: scary, darkly comic, and psychologically complex in ways that largely avoid fetishizing the killers themselves, even if much of Anthony Hopkins’ dialogue became part of the national lexicon right after. It’s so great in nearly every way(*) that the most creatively successful films and shows set in this world have had to approach the material very differently. The style of Hannibal was so baroque, at times bordering on science fiction, that it felt like nothing anyone had attempted before. (It was also a minor miracle that a show so strange and gory aired for three seasons on a broadcast network, even if NBC got the show cheaply through international distributor Gaumont.)

(*) The material about Buffalo Bill skinning his victims so he could dress up in a woman suit was always problematic, and definitely hasn’t aged well, even though the film goes out of its way to argue that Bill was not transgender. Clarice largely tries to sidestep the issue when his crimes are discussed. 

The film and TV rights to Red Dragon, the Thomas Harris book that introduced Hannibal, and Silence of the Lambs, which introduced Clarice, were sold separately, which at the moment means the two characters can no longer appear in the same adaptation. Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller had hoped to untangle that issue in order to use Clarice in a potential fourth season. Instead, she is headlining this new show, from Star Trek: Discovery producers Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet. Though it frequently references the events of Silence, Lecter can’t be mentioned by name, and he is only alluded to once, when Clarice’s current therapist (Shawn Doyle) points out that her last one “was an inmate in a hospital for the criminally insane.”

Clarice is very much about the attempts by its title character (played here by Australian actor Rebecca Breeds) to separate herself from the Buffalo Bill case and all of its physical and emotional trauma. So the absence of her true nemesis makes some thematic sense, on top of the real-life business reasons that are keeping him out of the story. But without either the surreal flourishes of Hannibal or the presence of Dr. Lecter himself, Clarice is a slightly above-average CBS crime procedural, distinctive less for anything it does than for its associations with better, more famous material.

The fact that the show works at all — and on some occasions, thanks mainly to Breeds, truly succeeds — is on one hand a relief, given how easy it would be to screw up this material. But on the other, what’s the point of telling a new story with this character (along with several other Silence holdovers) and not trying to do something special?

The series begins in 1993, set roughly a year after the events of the book/movie. The period setting is a smart choice, because both serial killers and female FBI agents were still relative novelties back then. The public and the news media are figuring out how to talk about monsters like Buffalo Bill, while Clarice and her roommate Ardelia Mapp (Devyn Tyler) are struggling to navigate an agency dominated by men who barely tolerate or understand them. In a premiere episode titled “The Silence Is Over,” we learn that a psychologically scarred Clarice retreated from her public heroism to do data entry and analysis at the Bureau’s behavioral sciences lab. Her self-exile ends when new Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson) — mother of Catherine (Marnee Carpenter), whom Clarice rescued from Bill’s dungeon — assigns her to an elite unit run by Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz), a minor figure from Silence. Clarice doesn’t want to be there, Krendler doesn’t trust her, and her teammates Esquivel (Lucca de Oliveira), Tripathi (Kal Penn), and Clarke (Nick Sandow) aren’t sure what to make of her, to varying degrees.

Breeds isn’t the first actor to try to fill Jodie Foster’s shoes in this role, since Julianne Moore played Clarice in the 2001 movie Hannibal(*). Like her predecessors (particularly Foster, as shot by Silence director Jonathan Demme), she looks tiny next to her male peers like Cudlitz, which helps emphasize how out of place she appears to be in this job. Breeds’ West Virginia accent is passable enough not to be a distraction, and she does a strong job of playing a Clarice who’s more broken than we’re used to, aware that she’s good at this work but reluctant to keep doing it in the wake of what she experienced on the Buffalo Bill case.

(*) This show is ignoring the sequel’s existence, which is a good thing for Paul Krendler, since in that movie (in which the character was played by Ray Liotta), he suffers an especially stomach-churning fate.

Breeds’ co-stars do what they can in fairly thankless roles so far. (Cudlitz, incredible on the NBC/TNT cop drama Southland, draws blood from a stone as Krendler, making him seem human even though his primary function is to hype up our heroine by constantly being wrong about her.) So she’s the main attraction, and the best parts of the series use her to dig deeper into the long-term emotional trauma that these crimes could have on the people investigating them. (Or, in the case of the now-reclusive Catherine Martin, on the ones who survive physically but not psychologically.)

The plots, though, are generic, as the series can’t decide if it wants to be the new Criminal Minds or something more. The main story arc puts a twist on the usual formula for this kind of show: Clarice is the only one who thinks the big case does not involve a serial killer, but a larger conspiracy that’s using serial-killer-style trappings as disguise, and nobody wants to believe her at first. But the inversion doesn’t change things up all that much, and the second episode randomly assigns the team to a Waco-style siege at a Tennessee compound where Clarice’s Applachian roots prove useful.

It’s unclear whether Kurtzman and Lumet are trying to work against expectations or are simply not that interested in all of the now overly-familiar tropes about how the minds of men like Buffalo Bill or Hannibal Lecter work. Whatever the reason, their early approach only reinforces the question of why anyone would want to revisit this character, and this turf, without a strong, decisive take on it. The show deploys a flat, desaturated visual style, and the few memorable images seem borrowed from either Silence of the Lambs (like a therapy session that begins with both Clarice and her doctor in extreme close-up, practically staring down the camera) or Hannibal (Clarice is haunted by surreal nightmares inspired by Buffalo Bill’s death’s-head moths). Even the moments that work can’t help evoking memories of its superior predecessors.

In the pilot, a bitter Catherine Martin tells Clarice, “You think you can rewrite the story, but you can’t.” The story of Clarice Starling has already been told spectacularly well. This new adventure isn’t bad, but it also can’t rewrite our memories of its superior predecessors.

Clarice premieres February 11th on CBS. I’ve seen the first three episodes.

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