After years out of the spotlight, one of the most influential characters in pop culture history returns in the CBS launch of “Clarice,” a show that picks up not long after the action of “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris, adapted into one of the most awarded and beloved film thrillers of all time. Because of truly odd ownership issues, this version of Clarice Starling’s life will never use the name Hannibal Lecter, but the vicious cannibal looms over the proceedings in a few ways, and not just because of the iconic performances by Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins.
Instead of leaving behind He Who Shall Not Be Named, “Clarice” is very much about the trauma of what happened in “Silence,” and how that has impacted not just Starling but behavioral science, politics around major cases, and reporting on serial killers. Secondarily, it’s a show that can’t possibly be expected to artistically live up to the legacy of one of the best films of all time on a weekly basis, but it’s regularly placing itself in that context by virtue of its storytelling. If it succeeds, and pulls away to form its own identity, it could end up a very different companion piece to Jonathan Demme’s film, and even the acclaimed NBC show “Hannibal,” but it understandably has a few growing pains to get out of the way first before that could possibly happen. There’s reason to have hope that it happens, however. The writing and craftsmanship are much stronger than a standard CBS case-of-the-week show, and the cast appears up to the challenge of reclaiming the legacy of “Clarice” and making her name as resonant again as Lecter’s.
“Clarice” opens in 1993, a year after Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) shot Buffalo Bill and saved the life of Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), daughter of Senator Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), who is now the Attorney General. Starling didn’t become the expected hero after that case as the tabloids jumped on how her vulnerability with Lecter allowed him to escape, even calling her the Bride of Frankenstein on magazine covers. A tabloid sensation doesn’t make for a rock-solid FBI agent, so creators Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman have essentially knocked Starling down a peg or two to start the show, returning her to a status where she’s often derided by the men around her, even if she’s clearly often the smartest person in the room. (Gaslighting and gender issues return prominently to this version of the story, reflecting elements of the source that have been lost in the cult of Lecter.) It’s smart of Lumet and Kurtzman to sort of go back to the roots of this character in that her intelligence masks trauma both from childhood and now from the Buffalo Bill case. Starling is good at hiding that which haunts her, but also using it to assess the situation in front of her.
The premiere introduces a potential new serial killer when two mutilated bodies are found in a river, but Starling is hesitant to label it as such, noting that a pair of victims does not make a serial killer and that the evidence points in another direction. The way politicians and journalists want to label cases and villains is an interesting part of the first three episodes of “Clarice” (which is all that’s screened for press). It feels like Kurtzman and Lumet are very carefully avoiding stealing focus from Starling herself by giving her another Lecter or even another Buffalo Bill to chew scenery. And yet they don’t lose the thematic resonance of the Thomas Harris books or films in the sense that they maintain a focus on how men use power and position to gain an advantage. All three episodes not only feature conflict between Starling and superiors but cases that involve silencing women. They do an admirable job maintaining the time period in terms of investigative tools while also making it thematically resonant to 2021.
“Clarice” does surround its heroine with a crew of federal helpers that should feel familiar to fans of CBS procedurals. (Every CBS mystery show needs a makeshift family of investigators.) The underrated Michael Cudlitz (“Southland”) is effective as the grumpy and suspicious Paul Krendler, a character name that should be familiar to fans of the books and movies (Ray Liotta played him memorably in the Ridley Scott adaptation of “Hannibal”). Lucca De Oliveira is charismatic as the strongest ally for Starling, a former sniper named Esquivel, and it’s nice to see the character of Ardelia Mapp given more prominence than she was in the films, played here by Devyn A. Tyler. Kal Penn also makes a welcome return to episodic TV on the team, although his role in the first three episodes feels slighter than it’s likely to be going forward. Finally, Carpenter and Atkinson are strong as a mother and daughter unable to really communicate since the trauma of what happened to Catherine.
And that’s really what this version of “Clarice” is about: how one doesn’t just move on from trauma but uses it to grow and change. Clarice Starling knew how to communicate with Hannibal Lecter and solve the case of Buffalo Bill not by denying her past but by revealing it. And Breeds is very good here at balancing the emotional vulnerability of this character with her blinding intellect. She makes for an above-average center of a CBS mystery-of-the-week show, elevating this far above what could have been just a variation on the “C.S.I.” model of grisly TV.
“Clarice” isn’t afraid to confront its heritage directly—Starling says “quid pro quo” in the first scene—but also makes clear early on that it’s not going to be content to merely be a retread. Its smartest moves are in how it takes themes of its source material and expands on them instead of just repeating them, and then distills them into thrilling, modern entertainment. The third episode is easily the best, a very strong hour that takes place almost entirely in a police station as Starling and her team again try to unpack a devious mind with new and varied interrogation techniques, unsure of the motives of the man to whom they’re speaking or even those around him. It’s an indication of how entertaining this show could be on a weekly basis. Pop culture produced a dozen or so variations on Clarice Starling in the years after the massive success of “The Silence of the Lambs.” It only makes sense that the circle would eventually be closed. [B]
“Clarice” debuts on CBS on February 11.