At the end of 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, serial killer and cannibal Hannibal Lecter tells investigator Clarice Starling, “The world’s more interesting with you in it.” The new CBS series Clarice, which brings the character back for a procedural drama, marks the first time his theory has been tested. Set one year after the events depicted in Lambs, Clarice is built around the young FBI agent, and the show features only the most oblique references to Lecter. Showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet didn’t have a choice; complicated rights issues prevented Lecter from being involved. But it leaves an enormous challenge for the series: to make Starling interesting enough to make viewers forget about Lecter altogether.
Bizarrely, the series constantly reminds the audience of his absence, and of the film where he and 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. 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. Technically, Starling is never cleared to return to work, but she does so anyway, at the request of the U.S. Attorney General (Jayne Atkinson), whose daughter Kathy (Marnee Carpenter) is the girl Starling saved from Buffalo Bill.
Clarice joins the newly-formed ViCAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program), dedicated to tracking and hunting down serial killers. The other members of her team — including character actors Kal Penn and Nick Sandow, both thoroughly wasted here — regard her with suspicion due to her inexperience, and rightly so. All she has to offer is homespun wisdom. “The monsters among us are a reflection of who we are,” she informs her boss at one point. I hope he wrote that one down.
Beyond the lazy setup, Clarice features numerous unforced errors in judgment. It’s inexplicable that a show about a unit dedicated to stopping serial killers doesn’t actually feature any. The first and third episodes set up a seemingly season-long conspiracy plot about a suspected serial killer, who’s immediately revealed to be a hitman working for an evil pharmaceutical company. Sandwiched in between those stories is a bottle episode about an Appalachian cult leader who kills a law-enforcement officer, launching a tense, Waco-like stand-off with federal authorities. Living up to the ghost of Lecter is hard enough, but the comedown from cinema’s most charismatic villain to generic, underwritten criminals is downright depressing.
The biggest missed opportunity, however, is the series’ failure to more deeply explore the gender politics that made Silence of the Lambs stand out. If one thing could have made Clarice feel relevant in 2021, this was it, but the writers opt for buzzwords over meaningful exploration. Starling throws out the term “gaslighting” in a key moment, and it’s impossible to miss how she’s the only woman on a team investigating the murder of several women.
But the writers never pull at this thread. They are so far uninterested in uncovering the complex challenges of being a woman in an alpha-male environment. Instead, they rely on implying that there’s sexism to create the illusion that they’re telling a serious, adult story. It’s bad feminism that also reveals a contradiction between what the show wants to be and what it is. Clarice hints at the richer themes and character-driven plots of serial storytelling, but its creators lack the patience to get there.
Their storytelling failure on that issue is a cloud that hangs over the series, which entirely hinges on the question of whether Clarice’s superiors believe she’s tough enough to overcome her trauma. Would a male agent be treated with the same skepticism? Or would he be told to “man up” and “get back out there?” No one asks. It’s a missed opportunity to address a real and persistent misogyny in law-enforcement circles. But by ignoring the issue, Clarice instead indulges in that misogyny, asking viewers to simply believe that Starling is more fragile than her male counterparts. There is a character in this fictional universe smart enough to see through the pretenses, expose limited thinking, and ask those kinds of probing questions. Unfortunately, he’s the one character who’s contractually obligated to stay offscreen.
Clarice debuts on CBS and CBS All Access on Feb. 11th at 10pm Eastern. The pilot episode will be available for free on YouTube after the series premiere.