Nearly 30 years to the day after The Silence of the Lambs debuted across America (Valentine’s Day 1991, for those of you who like a good ironic release date), we’re going back to the basement.
Written by showrunners Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman and directed by CBS journeywoman Maja Vrvilo (Cold Case, Hawaii Five-0), Clarice’s premiere episode is a continuation of the story of young FBI Agent Clarice Starling, who engaged in a battle of wits with one serial killer in order to wage a battle of bullets with another. Due to a complicated rights situation, the name of the former is verboten, while the latter lingers as a catalyst for Clarice’s post-traumatic stress disorder. The big question for viewers is whether the shadow cast by the absent Hannibal Lecter (himself the subject of a TV series spinoff, a sequel, two prequels, and a Michael Mann cult classic, to say nothing of the source novels by Thomas Harris) obscures too much to make this a show worth watching.
As the series begins, it’s been months since FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) burst into the basement of misogynistic serial killer Buffalo Bill (Simon Norwood, shown in snippets that mimic Ted Levine’s work in the role from the film to a tee) and rescued his would-be victim Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter). In that time Clarice has become famous, dubbed “the face of the FBI,” a role to which she is temperamentally completely unsuited. It’s not her cup of tea professionally, either, as she prefers working with data in the Behavior Science Unit’s basement to field work.
Clarice has a similarly fraught relationship with the Bill case itself. While she puts herself through the emotional ringer by attending a hearing in order to listen to statements from the victims’ families, she refuses to accept Catherine’s phone calls. Clarice does not want to see herself as another of Bill’s victims, despite how close he came to killing her; talking to Catherine, the only other survivor, would mark Clarice as a survivor herself, and she wants nothing to do with that sobriquet.
Catherine’s mother Ruth (Jayne Atkinson) sees things differently. Having ascended from the Senate to the position of attorney general largely on the strength of her very personal stake in the battle against violent crime, she’s determined to use Clarice’s high public profile to the benefit of her work in the AG’s office. So she extracts Clarice from the basement and thrusts her back onto the front lines as part of ViCAP, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program. Her first case: an investigation into two dead bodies that bear all the hallmarks of a serial killer.
To a fault, in fact. Clarice deduces that the bite marks and stab wounds that festoon the corpses were placed there by the killer as a cover-up for his extremely efficient executions via gunshots to the head. Clarice discovers that the victims are linked by their special-needs children and their participation in a pharmaceutical clinical trial. Digging up an investigative reporter’s contact info hidden in one of the victims’ box of maxipads (a place where her traditionally minded husband would never dare to look), Clarice and her fellow agent, Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira), travel to the journalist’s home to interview her.
And just in the nick of time. Esquivel notices a vehicle with no license plates parked near the house, which reminds him of his own training as a military sniper. The two enter the home; in addition to finding a treasure trove of info marking the victims as whistleblowers on the clinical trial, they find the reporter bleeding out in the bathtub and an assassin trying to escape after staging the scene to look like a suicide. Clarice non-fatally wounds the killer, who demands a deal in exchange for giving up whoever hired him.
None of this sits well with Agent Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz), the head of the ViCAP team and no fan of Clarice’s, having been outfoxed by her during the search for Buffalo Bill. There’s not really that much to say about Krendler, a bog-standard asshole captain character who continuously puts Clarice down and pressures her into delivering press-friendly sound bites about serial killers. In the end, Clarice bucks his authority and tells the press they’ve uncovered a conspiracy to silence whistleblowers. (How Krendler thinks he can maintain the serial-killer story when they’ve just uncovered a house literally full of info to the contrary is a mystery not even Clarice could solve.) After dutifully reciting the names of the victims rather than the name of the killer, Clarice declares “I’ll be here until we close the book.”
There is one very live issue on which the pilot appears to have closed the book already: How much of a presence will Hannibal Lecter’s absence occupy in the show? Clarice’s legally mandated inability to mention him by name — in one of the episode’s funnier moments, Clarice’s shrink refers to him as her former therapist — did not necessarily mean he wouldn’t still be there, exerting unseen influence.
Consider, for example, the way Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone became a sort of structuring absence in The Godfather Part II, a void around which the whole story implicitly orbited, with Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone attempting to live up to the old man’s legacy while the flashbacks to Robert De Niro’s young version of Vito depicted how he became the larger-than-life presence he was in the first film. A bit closer to home, Laura Palmer was just a prom photo and a few seconds of videotape footage for the bulk of Twin Peaks. However, creators David Lynch and Mark Frost never lost sight of how her absence, caused by her murder, continued to affect her family and friends, even after the circumstances of that murder were uncovered and solved. (Well, more or less — particularly by the show’s third season, it was clear that nothing in Twin Peaks was ever truly solved).
By contrast, Clarice devises a bold and, to my mind, successful work-around for the Hannibal issue: It prioritizes Clarice’s experience confronting and killing Buffalo Bill, the murderer whom Lecter helped her track down, rather than her experience with the good doctor himself. The decision actually makes good sense, from a character perspective. Sure, Clarice’s conversations with the Cannibal were harrowing; granting a psychopathic psychiatrist a deep dive into your childhood trauma is gonna leave a mark. But Clarice implicitly argues — with ample justification, as far as I’m concerned — that killing a man before he kills both you and the young woman he intended to be his seventh victim is a much bigger deal, leaving much deeper wounds. Clarice’s constant flashbacks (emphasis on flash; they pop up for split seconds) to Bill and his moth-infested house of horrors ground the show in that experience, not in Clarice’s comparatively tame quid-pro-quo relationship with Lecter.
(That Lecter is currently at large in the show’s time frame, having escaped during the course of the events of the film, does not appear to enter into its calculations at all; as Clarice herself said in the movie, she’s not worried about Lecter coming after her, because “he would consider that rude.” Case closed!)
In a way, though, it’s not Jonathan Demme and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter who haunts the show through his absence — it’s Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen’s. Stylistically, Clarice attempts to chart a middle course between the Hannibal TV show’s artsy grotesquerie and your basic CBS procedural’s dingy Hollywood “realism.” On the one hand, rapid-fire editing, phantasmagorically abstract imagery, and bloody violence dominate when Clarice’s PTSD is triggered, whether by the flashbulbs of the overeager press or the constant reminders her job provides her with. On the other, Clarice’s interactions with her superiors, from Attorney General Martin to Agent Krendler, feel like they could be drawn from any show in which a brash young cop who doesn’t play by the rules has to buck the system to get the job done, yadda yadda yadda. The crime-scene investigations, the witness interviews, getting the jump on the perp before he can kill again — it’s all familiar from any of the CSI/SVU/NCIS/Criminal Minds/Chicago Whatever shows out there.
That said, The Silence of the Lambs casts a looooooong shadow over all of the “cop searches for a serial killer” media that has followed in the three decades since its release, including all the aforementioned shows. This traps Clarice in a weird sort of loop, as it tries to differentiate itself from all the other series that have cribbed extensively from the film to which Clarice is an explicit sequel. It remains to be seen if it’s a trap from which the show can escape.
If it does, I’d have to bet Rebecca Breeds’s performance as the title character will be the catalyst. While Hopkins’s Hannibal became a movie monster on par with Darth Vader, Freddy Krueger, and King Kong, The Silence of the Lambs simply would not have worked without Foster’s contribution. (See the fates of Hannibal and Red Dragon for proof.) Lecter once remarked that Clarice Starling wore cheap shoes; however cheap they may be, they’re pretty damn big ones to fill in the wake of Jodie Foster’s wire-taut, Oscar-winning performance. As capable an actor as Julianne Moore struggled in the role, with her portrayal of Clarice in Ridley Scott’s sequel film Hannibal reading as merely flat rather than painfully reserved. Breeds does a better job nailing Starling’s affect, that blend of youthful nervous energy, professional restraint, and personal damage that Foster illuminated so memorably. Whether that translates into a series worth following over time … well, I’ll be here until they close the book.