‘Clarice’ shows how deep the shadow cast by ‘Silence of the Lambs’ goes

Quid pro quo. That’s what Clarice wants from its viewers, nothing more.

The new CBS TV series openly asks us to anchor ourselves in the past, as it references and directly revisits the events of The Silence of the Lambs. It’s technically a story about Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds), the young and talented FBI cadet who inadvertently cornered and ended up killer a serial killer called Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine, who appears in occasional clips pulled from the movie).

This isn’t just Clarice’s story, however. In taking down Bill, she rescued Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), the daughter of then-Congresswoman and now-U.S. Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson). Over the course of the three episodes CBS provided for critics, we come to understand how all three women have dealt with their shared trauma.

To appreciate what Clarice is apparently doing — or at least trying to do, since it’s impossible to judge this early in the series — you really have to take yourself back to Lambs. Watching it again helps a lot. Centering yourself inside the trauma inflicted on these women is crucial to understanding the mindsets at play in Clarice, and the show’s cutaways to movie clips (and recreated clips) don’t get us fully there.

That’s where the other side of the quid pro quo offers come into the picture. Commit to re-entering a universe inhabited by one of Hollywood’s most terrifying serial killers and you’ll be rewarded in Clarice with closure. Or at least the promise of closure; again, it’s early days.

Quid pro quo. That’s what Clarice wants from its viewers, nothing more.

The show opens with Agent Starling being grilled by a government therapist who’s there to assess her mental stability for a return to field world. Clarice has been tapped to join a task force assembled by AG Martin with a mandate to seek out and bring to justice other killers like Bill. Ruth comes off as deeply, almost obsessively, committed to seeing that no mother ever again goes through what she did.

Unfortunately, the opening stretch of episodes swings a bit too wide at points, between catching viewers up on who Clarice is and the demons lurking in her history, as well as delving into the Martin family’s ongoing recovery and introducing the rest of the task force (Lucca De Oliveira, Kal Penn, Murray Sandow, and Michael Cudlitz). Clarice’s old friend Ardelia Mapp (Kasi Lemmons in Lambs, now Devyn A. Tyler) is also a key player here.

Then there are the politics. Ruth, working at the highest levels of government, understands in a way others don’t that sometimes you have to accept some bad to vanquish true evil. It’s an as-yet-undeveloped source of tension between the AG and her task force that hints at more of a payoff later in the season. And I haven’t even mentioned the crimes yet. 

Clarice is a procedural crime show at heart. And to its credit, there’s some good stuff here. It’s not on the same level as the artful, and almost pornographic delivery of Hannibal‘s elaborate murders. But there are unexpected twists and tight, tense plotting that makes each hour feel like it’s flying by.

As for Clarice the person, she’s not just here for psychoanalysis. Agent Starling is on the team to solve some murders. She’s a famous face but a relative mystery as a public figure, creating some initial unease as she joins a team of mostly-veteran agents who see her as a politically motivated appointment. But as Lambs made it clear even during her cadet days: Agent Starling is a woman possessed of natural talent. She was made for this work.

She still is. Breeds’ take on Clarice is tentative about going back into the field, and she’s clearly still wrestling with her demons. But as she herself points out, how many agents out there aren’t dealing with something traumatic in their past? When trauma is part of your everyday work life, it’s not exactly something you can just avoid.

It seems more difficult for Clarice only because we’re inside her head. But by the end of the third episode, as the supporting cast takes better shape, we’re starting to see how everyone around her is broken in their own ways. The show’s going to have to choose a stance at some point so every episode isn’t grappling with “will she or won’t she lose it?” as an open question. It comes up repeatedly in the first three hours and it’s not sustainable if the goal is to build a complete character (or, frankly, an interesting television show).

Image: Brooke Palmer ©2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

There’s also the inescapable murderous elephant in the room: Hannibal Lecter. Clarice refers to the cannibal psychologist just once in its opening stretch, and it’s not by name. That’s all because of rights issues, apparently, but that presents a problem. 

If this is a show that means to dig into Clarice Starling’s trauma and ongoing recovery, it’s going to be a tricky thing to pull off if the story is handcuffed into only addressing half of what she went through. Lecter’s three-day psychoanalytical sprint through the young cadet’s brain is just as important to understanding who she is one year later as her encounter with Bill. The show explores aspects of Clarice’s past just as Dr. Lecter did, and even expands on them. But it’s increasingly strange to visit these places without addressing the bad doctor’s role in drawing them out.

The show manages to walk a narrow path into Clarice’s past over its first three hours, out of 10 total. A lot of that has to do with the broad focus that encompasses criminal investigation, B-plots with the Martin family, and introductions for the supporting cast (which is well cast but still doesn’t feel totally solid, I’m sad to report). But juggling all of that is only going to get harder as the story develops.

And so we come back to the opening offer. Are you willing to sit down and re-immerse yourself in the fiction of The Silence of the Lambs? Is the dangling promise of more clearly defined characters and closure enough to make this multi-hour journey one worth taking? 

It’s hard to say for sure at this point, which might make the show a tough sell at a time when there are so many other things to watch. I do see glimmers of hope in the slow start that leave me curious enough to keep watching, but not enough to pull me through the rest of the season if this pace keeps up much longer.

Quid pro quo, Clarice.

The first episode of Clarice premieres on CBS and CBS All Access on Feb. 11, with new episodes to follow each Thursday.

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