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Clarice is more of a CBS cop show than something distinctive like Hannibal

  • "Among the disappointments of reboot culture is an impossible tension between the quality of the source material and the purpose of expanding the story: What if the most interesting, distinctive and dramatic parts of a character’s life have simply already happened? Not all stories are origin stories," says Margaret Lyons. "Clarice...is a continuation of the saga that began in Thomas Harris’s book Red Dragon and is best known for the movie The Silence of the Lambs. And while there’s no shame in not being as good as The Silence of the Lambs, shooting for the moon, as middle school yearbooks teach us, allows one to land among the stars. Clarice is not aiming for the moon; it is aiming for — and achieves — CBS cop show. It’s a franchise in search of a purpose....Based on the five episodes made available for review, I just wish it felt more special instead of yet another glugged out blob from the crime show machine. There are lots of camera shutters gasping and gross images of mutilated corpses, and of course everything is underlit and difficult to see. Clarice’s vices are Diet Coke and Twizzlers, and we learn that as a child, she watched Road Runner — why, these details are almost too specific and illuminating. Predictability abounds."


    • Bizarrely, Clarice constantly reminds the audience of Hannibal Lecter's absence, and of the film where he and Clarice Starling met: "It introduces Starling (Rebecca Breeds) in the midst of another session with a cold, calculating psychiatrist, this one the FBI shrink (Shawn Doyle) tasked with determining whether she’s ready to return to the field after the traumas she faced in Silence of the Lambs," says Noah Gittell. "It’s the first time Clarice re-creates shots from the film, with Buffalo Bill in his basement lair, but not the last; they’re repeated in all of the first three episodes provided for critics. There are also direct-to-camera close-ups of Starling and the psychiatrist that mirror the way her meetings with Lecter were shot. Finally, there’s Breeds’ blatant attempt to mimic Jodie Foster’s wide-eyed stare and precise Appalachian accent in the movie. Like the rest of Clarice, her performance is a simulacrum that only exposes the gulf between the imitation and the real thing. In theory, there’s something nifty about the parallel between the story and the execution of the story. Neither Clarice nor Starling can escape their past — but only one of them is trying. Clarice is thoroughly content to rely on its IP and place its heroine into a boilerplate procedural."
    • Clarice is a frustratingly superficial psychological thriller: "The three episodes provided for review suggest that Clarice will attempt to balance procedural-style story lines, such as a Waco-era cult siege that wraps up within a single twisty hour, with the kind of intricate, extended conspiracy plot embraced by prestige-branded cable and streaming crime dramas," says Judy Berman. "That structure works fine, at least so far. What’s worrisome is that a longer arc requires nuanced storytelling and, in particular, characters with enough layers to justify several seasons’ worth of development. The show can’t keep pushing the same buttons every week. Unfortunately, in early episodes, charismatic actors like Kal Penn and Nick Sandow (best known as Orange Is the New Black’s conflicted warden, Joe Caputo) seem wasted in bland FBI-guy roles. Paul comes across as the standard, casually sexist, easily corruptible law-enforcement type. Even Clarice fails to enthrall. That is, in part, because Breeds’ restrained (over-the-top West Virginia accent notwithstanding) performance can’t compete with the potent mix of strength and mortal terror Foster achieved. More disappointing is a backstory that harps on what little The Silence of the Lambs revealed about Clarice’s past—namely, that she was orphaned when her small-town cop father was killed in the line of duty—without deepening it."
    • The absence of Lecter and his indelible dynamic with Clarice leaves a huge void that Clarice struggles to fill: "The result is a disappointingly run-of-the-mill procedural — another dark, grim Criminal Minds clone with a shiny brand name slapped on the front of it," says Dave Nemetz, adding: "Co-creators Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman both work on Star Trek: Discovery and Picard, so they’re used to revamping big-name brands. But the ghost of Hannibal Lecter looms large here: Without the good doctor to spar with, Clarice isn’t all that interesting. Breeds has a daunting task replacing Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance as Clarice, and she does an admirable job. (She nails the West Virginia accent, for one thing.) But it’s hard not to feel like we’re being served a prettied-up, Hollywood version of Clarice, and it rings false that, given the strong bond she and Lecter had in Lambs, she’d barely mention him here."
    • Clarice Sterling deserves better, even if Rebecca Breeds excels in Clarice: The Australian actress "makes the part her own, giving the young agent low-key determination and grit, undergirded by a sadness Clarice tries to ignore," says Jen Chaney. But she adds: "Clarice Starling is certainly, then and now, a fascinating character. She is certainly worthy of her own series. But this particular attempt to put her at the center of a narrative doesn’t rise to the intelligence and complexity of the woman herself. The agent deserves better, and, at least in the initial episodes, it doesn’t seem like Clarice knows how to give her that."
    • Clarice does Clarice Starling proud: "Played here by Rebecca Breeds, Clarice Starling is electric," says Kelly Connolly. "Breeds is immediately charming in the role — she's not impersonating Jodie Foster, but she leaves a similar impression, simultaneously tough and vulnerable and sparking like a live wire. She's even the right height to be towered over by the men around her. What holds the character together is Clarice's distinctive West Virginia accent, which, going by my West Virginia grandparents, the Australian actress nails. It's a thrill to hear an Appalachian accent on a smart woman at the center of a major network procedural. Like the movie, the series has the confidence not to overplay what makes Clarice Starling cool. Clarice is interested in its hero as a person, not a pop culture legacy. And as the show pushes past her larger-than-life reputation, a traumatized Clarice is basically doing the same."
    • Everything about Clarice wrestles between the desire to evoke its direct predecessor and stand apart from it: "Breeds cranks out a fine performance that doesn't feel original to her, and that might not be entirely her fault since she's swimming in the wake of a giant standard bearer for a franchise that's been hit and miss," says Melanie McFarland. "The part she's taken up is a hit though, and that means one can't help thinking the Appalachian accent rolling around in her mouth sounds like something between (Jodie) Foster's and Julianne Moore's from the terrible 2001 version of Hannibal. (Fortunately for Clarice (and Special Agent Krendler) that's set sometime down the road.)"
    • Clarice has more going on within than one might first surmise: "Clarice was brought back to life onscreen for reasons beyond that she’s a familiar name, and — gratifyingly, if due as much to realities of the business as artistic decisions — beyond that she once met a charismatic cannibal," says Daniel D'Addario. "In the wake of her tangling with him, Clarice is at once recovering and becoming something new. She’s coming, further, into her own power. Clarice is made with curiosity, confidence, and craft, and it comes as a happy surprise to say that it cares more about its protagonist’s mind than anyone else’s insides."
    • Without the presence of Dr. Lecter himself, Clarice is a slightly above-average CBS crime procedural: Clarice, says Alan Sepinwall, is "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 absence of Lecter’s name ends up bringing more attention to how weird the situation is: "There’s a world in which the void left by Lecter could have been for the best: the serial killer already has been memorably portrayed in film and television by Anthony Hopkins and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively, and whenever such an indelible character takes center stage, he tends to devour everything around him," says Miles Surrey. "(Oftentimes, uh, literally.) Clarice Starling, meanwhile, hasn’t had a fair shake since Jodie Foster’s exemplary take on the character in (Jonathan) Demme’s adaptation in 1991. (The less said about Julianne Moore’s portrayal in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, the better.) With the CBS series set in 1993, Clarice is still navigating leering, male-dominated workplaces—plus, she doesn’t have access to a cellphone, which has become a serial killer-tracking cheat code. There could have been worthwhile material to explore, in spite of this silly legal minefield over a name."
    • Rewatching Silence of the Lambs is recommended to understand Clarice: "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," says Adam Rosenberg. "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 comes 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."
    • Clarice starts promisingly enough but quickly fizzles over subsequent episodes: "Clarice doesn't want to rewrite the past, but rather to springboard off of it in slow-motion, leveraging the title to gin up more curiosity than another, more generic drama might," says Brian Lowry. "It's an approach that has worked before, commercially anyway, and Clarice comes after a host of Super Bowl ads heralding its arrival. But based on the disappointing trajectory of the second and third hours, if the series wants to avoid winding up on the slab it's going to have to offer a more satisfying quid pro quo than the fleeting rush it gets from echoing the sounds of 'Silence.'"
    • Rebecca Breeds believes Clarice is now “such a more interesting character” than the “black hole” of Hannibal Lecter’s evil: “This is a story about a woman living in trauma and we’re getting to finally tell it. The silence is over,” says Breeds. “This is a new narrative from that world that we haven’t heard before. It’s about the post-traumatic stress and yes, it was meeting Hannibal and Buffalo Bill, but for me they were just the catalyst.”
    • Breeds loves speaking in Clarice's West Virginia drawl: "My favorite part about the accent is that it just brings the character home," explains the Australian actress. "You just switch into the accent. It's like, boom, I'm Clarice Starling. And at the end of the day, you leave the accent behind and I'm Australian again. I'm like, 'Ah.' It creates a differentiation between her life and my life — her life is very intense and very heavy. So it's a really good tool for me just as a person."

    TOPICS: Clarice, CBS, Rebecca Breeds

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