There have been few pop culture properties as enduring as the shared universe of cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter and FBI trainee Clarice Starling. When The Silence of the Lambs first terrified American audiences in 1991, en route to an enduring legacy as perhaps the greatest thriller of all time, the "franchise," such as it was, was already a thing, existing in two Thomas Harris novels and the Michael Mann film Manhunter. Come the 2000s, it only expanded from there: sequel films (2001's Hannibal, which re-cast Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling with Julianne Moore), prequel films, remakes, and eventually a prequel series on NBC centered around Hannibal himself. As Lecter became more and more central to this sometimes interconnected universe, Clarice Starling was pushed to the margins. That changes this week with the new CBS series Clarice, which picks up with its title character one year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. And if the 1991 film came to define a genre, Clarice finds itself at a crossroads of 2021 TV expectations.
For starters, Clarice is a network TV show. Which you'd think would be a limiting factor, but it would be disingenuous to say that a network version of this story can't go to the places The Silence of the Lambs went. Not when NBC's Hannibal, just a few years ago, delivered one of the bloodiest, most disturbing, most psychologically perverse TV series ever. But this is still CBS, and high-art horror is definitely not their wheelhouse. When they do macabre, it tends to be of a very procedural flavor. Still, shows like Criminal Minds owe a huge debt to The Silence of the Lambs, so it makes sense that CBS would drift to Clarice Starling as their entry point into the Hannibal-verse. And while Clarice doesn't shy away from the serial elements of Clarice's experience — with one very notable exception — this is still CBS attempting to tell a Silence of the Lambs story as a procedural. And they're off to a fairly good start.
A year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs — in which FBI trainee Clarice Starling followed up on a hunch and ended up in the home of James Gumb, who was the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, eventually killing him and rescuing the abducted Catherine Martin from a brutal and grisly death — Agent Starling (Rebecca Breeds) is still dealing with the aftermath. She sees flashes of that day in the dark of Buffalo Bill's labyrinthine basement; of Catherine helpless at the bottom of a pit; and hallucinations of that death's head moth that we in the audience are so familiar with from The Silence of the Lambs poster. She gets grilled by a Bureau-assigned shrink who prods at her to access her rage, but, flinty and pragmatic as ever, Clarice has no time for it. Not when she's being summoned to Washington by the new Attorney General of the United States, the former senator Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson). Ruth remains indebted to Clarice for saving her daughter from Buffalo Bill, but more than gratitude, there's a politician's pragmatism behind her desire to have Clarice join her new Violent Criminal Apprehension (VICAP) task force. Agent Starling's exploits in taking out Buffalo Bill make her the kind of law enforcement celebrity who can put the right kind of light on their work. And so once again, Clarice is plunged into the boys-club world of FBI investigation, joining a task force that views her with skepticism at best, hostility at worst.
Michael Cudlitz plays Agent Paul Krendler, lead agent in VICAP and still bruising over the FBI's general faceplant on the Buffalo Bill case. Clarice solving the case on her own made a lot of folks at the Bureau look bad, and Krendler doesn't seem keen on letting Agent Starling show him up again. Both Ruth Martin and Paul Krendler are holdover characters from The Silence of the Lambs, and the nods to the greater Hannibal-verse don't stop with them. The show kicks off with the familiar (and by now deeply unsettling) "Goodbye Horses" on the soundtrack. Clarice's frequent flashes back to Buffalo Bill's house are meticulous in their recreation of specific scenes and even shots from Jonathan Demme's original film: Buffalo Bill naked, seated at his sewing machine, making a woman suit out of skin; the shot straight down at Catherine Martin in the well; that ominous shot of the swirly butterfly wind chime; all those moths. Dialogue is repeated verbatim ("first principles"; "desperately random") and meme-able moments like putting the lotion in the basket get referenced like the characters in the show also grew up watching The Silence of the Lambs. But when these moments aren't taking the viewer out of the reality of the show, they're a reminder of how much the series desires to stitch itself to the original film. (This is also present in Breeds' performance, which seeks to capture Jodie Foster's haunted conviction.)
One of the many fascinating threads to pull at in Clarice is that it hasn't been updated to present day. The Buffalo Bill incident was in 1991, contemporary with the original film's release, and Clarice picks up around 1993, not long after the Waco siege that's referenced in the second episode. Clarice's specialty in behavioral analysis in relation to violent crime is still viewed by some of her colleagues with a scoff and a raised eyebrow. So we end up getting a lot of Clarice and her best pal Ardelia (another carryover from Silence) poring over evidence and generally being better agents than 90% of the Bureau.
The fact that Clarice marinates in all this Silence of the Lambs lore makes its one omission all the more glaring, as due to complicated rights issues between MGM and the Dino de Laurentiis Company, Clarice isn't allowed to reference the Hannibal Lecter character at all. So while Clarice Starling wakes up every day haunted by memories of Buffalo Bill, and Ruth Martin has dedicated the rest of her professional life to hunting down serial killers, there is no mention of the fact that Dr. Hannibal Lecter escaped from prison and has been on the run for over a year. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm eagerly awaiting the throwaway line that Dr. Chilton — that old friend Dr. Lecter was looking forward to having for dinner — hasn't been heard from in months.
Ultimately it's not a huge problem that Clarice can't speak Hannibal Lecter's name. The show is centered around an incredibly compelling character in her own right, and one who fits perfectly into the CBS procedural vibe. The first episode sets her and the VICAP team on the trail of a serial killer, but by episode's end, some twists in the investigation make that not as simple as it seems. The show sets off on a serialized conspiracy storyline that Clarice continues to follow throughout the three episodes critics were given for review, with the implication that this will be an ongoing and unfolding story. Meanwhile, VICAP deals with other, more self-contained story arcs in each episode. It's a satisfying structure, delivering both insights into Clarice as well as regular payoffs for anyone who's in this for a good detective story. And while the mysteries in these first three episodes feel a bit like they're on training wheels, it's satisfying watching Agent Starling and her new team come together.
All the while, Clarice is — as she was in The Silence of the Lambs — struggling with her own personal trauma, which can't help but thrust itself into her consciousness at inconvenient times. Her interactions with a cult leader in episode two sure do give the impression that her tendency to spill childhood secrets to any criminal mastermind who asks is a habitual thing. The fact that these flashes back to her father's death, as well as a recurring image of her young brother in the woods that day, suggest that we might end up learning more about Clarice Starling's past than we already know.
Ultimately Clarice scratches a few itches at once. It continues the story of a compelling character and picks up a few threads from the original. It might darkly amuse you, for instance, to learn that Catherine Martin kept custody of Buffalo Bill's little dog, Precious, although you get the sense that Catherine's deep damage after what happened to her is something that will come to a head for both her and Clarice. This is also a deeply watchable criminal-investigation show, especially the more Clarice works with the likes of Ruth Martin, Paul Krendler, and her VICAP team. (In particular, Lucca De Oliveira as the team's former Army sniper really emerges from the first three episodes as charismatic and with maybe a bit of chemistry with Clarice herself.) If the series isn't able to hunt for the escaped Hannibal Lecter, maybe that's okay. Perhaps Clarice Starling has always been able to fly, fly, fly all the way back to the FBI on her own.
Clarice premieres on CBS February 11th at 10:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.