Thirty years ago this week, The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters, giving Hannibal Lecter the opportunity to ask FBI Agent Clarice Starling if “the lambs stopped screaming.” Three decades have passed and, metaphorically, the lambs still have not stopped screaming. Now they’re just screaming within the confines of a CBS procedural.
Clarice, which debuts Thursday night, takes place a year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Played in the 1991 film by Jodie Foster and in this new series by Rebecca Breeds of Pretty Little Liars, Clarice is trying to quietly move forward with her FBI career while struggling with the PTSD that followed her investigation and capture of Buffalo Bill, the serial killer and skinner of women who figured prominently in the movie and the Thomas Harris novel on which it was based. Naturally, less than ten minutes into the pilot, she’s called upon by U.S. Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), the mother of Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), the woman held hostage by Buffalo Bill until Clarice saved her, to join the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) and investigate a series of killings in Washington, D.C. (Well, Washington, D.C., by way of Vancouver.)
Clarice mostly functions like any other CBS crime series. It’s got grisly photos of female crime victims, missteps by those attempting to solve the murders, and the reveal of circumstances behind the killings that are more complicated than they first seem. But it’s also draped in enough Silence of the Lambs accessories to make it appear dressier than the typical broadcast offering.
In the flashbacks to moments from that Best Picture winner — there are brief, passing glances at Buffalo Bill and that ghastly hole where he imprisoned Catherine — as well as in the visions of moths that intrude upon Clarice’s thoughts, it’s clear that creators Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet are aiming to push this project into more abstract, artsier territory. But that goal is at direct odds with the rest of the series, which, at least in the first three episodes provided to critics, is more focused on propelling the plot forward than effectively maintaining atmosphere and mood. For atmosphere and mood in a Thomas Harris adaptation, you’re better off watching Hannibal, the three-season NBC series that can now be streamed on Netflix. (By the way, due to rights issues, Hannibal Lecter is prohibited from appearing or even being referenced on Clarice.)
While Clarice aims to be a psychological character study of a figure often overshadowed by the cannibal alluded to above, it has a tendency to overexplain and operate on too literal terms, a common problem in mainstream broadcast TV. During the interrogation of a suspect in episode three, for example, other members of ViCAP add unnecessary color commentary as they observe what’s happening through a two-way mirror. “Keep digging,” Clarice whispers as her colleague Tomás (Lucca de Oliveira) continues his line of questioning. “Here we go,” says Emin (Kal Penn) right as the suspect is about to share potentially important information. For a show that is trying to be ambitious, it falls prey to far too many clichés, and an unrealistic glorification of Clarice. In any situation, whether it makes sense or not, Clarice is always deemed the uniquely perfect person for the job, whether it’s investigating a serial killer, handling a hostage situation, or trying to extract information from a potentially guilty party.
The cast deserves credit for trying to do their best with the material. Breeds is stepping into daunting shoes as Clarice, with the specter of performances by both Foster and Julianne Moore, who played the role in the movie Hannibal, looming in the cultural conscience. But she makes the part her own, giving the young agent low-key determination and grit, undergirded by a sadness Clarice tries to ignore. And as her boss/pseudo-nemesis Paul Krendler, Michael Cudlitz allows just enough gentleness to seep into his stubbornness and suggest that maybe he could fully warm to Clarice.
In addition to all the other stressors she faces, Clarice is in the daunting position of being the only woman in ViCAP. On more than one occasion when she tries to offer an opinion or piece of intel, her four other male colleagues turn simultaneously to stare at her, a moment the show smartly highlights for its intimidation factor. The series would be wise to continue to explore those gender dynamics, both within the FBI and in the relationship between the crime solvers and the victims, usually all women, for whom they seek justice. That’s one of the more interesting dynamics in the drama, and it hasn’t been mined as much as it could be.
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.