DVR Hindsight #20 (2/15/21): “Clarice” Premiere

“Clarice” – “The Silence is Over” – Season One, Ep. 1 (CBS)

For her performance as FBI trainee Clarice Starling, the hardscrabble West Virginia orphan who, while on special assignment with the Bureau’s Behavioral Sciences division, used her intuition, cunning, and self-belief to face down two notorious serial killers – bringing the second to justice after surviving a harrowing ordeal alone in the lair of the beast – Jodie Foster won the 1991 Academy Award for Best Actress. It was the zenith of Foster’s career, making her a two-time Oscar winner with a third nomination yet to come, and part of a near-unprecedented sweep of the evening’s highest profile categories for what is perhaps simultaneously the quintessential modern police procedural, true crime, and horror film, Jonathan Demme’s peerless, practically perfect The Silence of the Lambs. Dissatisfaction with the tone and script of Ridley Scott’s 2001 sequel would cause Foster to bow out of reprising her most famous role, though her replacement, estimable fellow Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, did exceedingly well with what little she was given. I don’t actually have a clear preference between the two in terms of performance – Foster’s is more nuanced and twitchy, Moore’s more gut-level and intense – though the superior film is beyond question. Whoever gets the credit, Clarice Starling is a study in composure in the face of nerve-fraying tension, in self-reliance against aligned forces far greater than herself, and in perseverance navigating the crucible of hell on Earth. This is clearly a character that resonates, played by exceptional actors without condescension or compromise. Why then was she essentially relegated to a supporting player in her own ostensible franchise, flaring out, unheard of again for almost twenty years? Blame the times – perhaps we weren’t ready for Clarice Starling out on her own – but, most assuredly, blame the villain.

My apologies in advance for the contextual comparisons already offered and the many yet to come, but my hand has been somewhat forced. A new show like CBS’ Clarice isn’t setting out to immediately chart its own path, though one may develop of its own accord if afforded the proper space and patience. I hope it is able to get there, because the potential is intriguing.* The refresher course I offered on the character and her origins above is entirely appropriate, since Clarice aligns itself with The Silence of the Lambs so closely – as a direct sequel, with a half dozen “where are they now?” characters (or at least recognizable names) and practically identical visual language punctuated with numerous flashback stingers and montages meant to specifically evoke the film’s most memorable moments – that at times it resembles a well-edited compilation of deleted scenes from the 30th anniversary blu-ray. The title card doesn’t read, “based on characters by Thomas Harris”, but, rather, “based on The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris”. And that’s the truth, yes, but not quite…all of it. Save for an oblique reference during a tense, almost combative opening session with Clarice’s own FBI-mandated psychiatrist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the breakout star of Harris’ grungy milieu and one of the singular villains in all of pop culture, let alone books or film, is missing from these proceedings entirely, an inverse casualty of the same rights issues that prevented Bryan Fuller’s superlative, at times hallucinatory, series Hannibal from ever attempting its own adaption of Silence the way it did with season three’s Red Dragon mini-arc, let alone its own version of Starling, though Anna Chlumsky’s analogue, kidnapped and disfigured by Lecter in season two, is a pretty conspicuous homage.

*It’ll also be the first of CBS’ approximately 118 current procedurals with which I’ve spent any appreciable time. So that’s kind of fun.

No matter what kind of statement the adaptors of Clarice eventually intend to make long term, there’s little doubt they would have held their collective nose and grudgingly acquiesced to Lecter’s presence if such had been a possibility. Certain inattentive viewers are going to go into the initial episodes thinking, understandably, that Hannibal, as not just the established fulcrum of the Harris-verse but its only real connective tissue between projects, will be a player of some import here as well, or at least a juicy cameo. Efforts to capture Lecter following his daring escape from remote FBI custody in Tennessee would certainly have been enormous and exhaustive. If young, now Special Agent Starling wasn’t directly involved in the resulting manhunt – tell me you wouldn’t watch that as a limited series – it’s a good bet that she would have been freelancing some unofficial parallel investigation on her own when possible. After all, that’s how she single handedly brought down the terrifying serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill” and rescued senator’s daughter Catherine Martin from his murder dungeon. Questions about that collar, which inarguably world have made Starling famous even in a Lecter-less world, abound throughout Clarice, as skeptical and resentful colleagues now wonder aloud en masse whether she found herself in Bill’s cluttered upstairs living room as a result not of particularly tenacious police work but blind luck, while the press and general public double down on her overnight reputation as a monster hunter. One imagines Lecter, who always took a keen interest in his erstwhile unofficial protege, following her press clippings with satisfaction from some casita in Argentina, or wherever he spirited off to at the end of Silence, but, alas, not this time.

The good doctor’s necessary absence then is at once Clarice’s most glaring flaw and its greatest opportunity. A flaw not simply because it robs her of the still-living opponent who did the most to test, temper, and define her, but of her partner in the evolving, strangely symbiotic relationship that, when you trimmed away all the institutional sexism and salacious murder trappings, really comprised the heart of Silence; an opportunity because Starling has never before been allowed to stand outside of Lecter’s shadow, unmoved or even unconsciously motivated by his pervasive, sinister influence. We are promised a look at what really makes Clarice tick, and it is to the credit of a show that initially seems consumed with the surface of things that its adaptors, Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman, appear to have done their homework. Origin stories remain in vogue, of course, particularly on television, and Clarice‘s debut already offers up more meaningful insight on its subject, despite perpetually looking back, than the first two seasons of, say, Fox’s Gotham had combined for Bruce Wayne, or Penguin, or Riddler, or anyone else, a benefit of the level of seriousness that even a non-obsessive Silence of the Lambs fan would surely demand. No points for properly classifying me. This is a show that gets the little beats right, even as the big picture remains maddeningly obscure. This is only partly a function of the season-spanning procedural model, in which the long game only ever comes into focus gradually. Clarice bets that it can accomplish a thoughtful character study intertwined with the sort of riveting, macabre investigatory arc so effortlessly pulled off by its source material, and so at least gets high marks for ambition.

Execution is another matter, as the doctor would I’m sure agree.

Clarice Starling (a modulated, meticulous Rebecca Breeds) is no easy part to play, some one-note crusading heroine programmed to make the viewer comfortable. Much closer to Foster’s purposely unfinished product than Moore’s salty burnout, the show realizes and generally does right by her. At issue is how best to frame Clarice’s struggles in a way that satisfies the contours of the character at this pivotal point in her journey while providing a riveting, inky black obsession – a Buffalo Bill, a Hannibal Lecter – into which she might convincingly disappear and emerge reforged by the experience. This debut episode sees Starling pulled out of self-imposed file room exile and thrust back into the spotlight as the unwitting public face of a new investigation similar to the one that made her name, but it’s all takeoff with no exit strategy. Buoyed by Silence’s pedigree and colored by Hannibal’s TV reputation – the former a thrumming, perfectly calibrated surgical operating theater and the latter an unhinged Grand Guignol soap opera, each freshly painted for opening night in thick, bewitching coats of blood red – I worry that Clarice will rack up a solid initial viewership only to almost immediately begin shedding them when expectations inevitably outstrip reality. Premiere episodes, since nobody really does traditional pilots anymore in the age of streaming bloat, are often described as small-scale standalone movies, and the best among them – Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Shield, ahem, Hannibal – bely their small-screen origins by way of their surpassing quality. As a one-shot swing for the fences, “The Silence is Over”, with its focus on interiors, thoughtful police work, poisonous office politics, and climactic anti-twist, isn’t worthy of sharing a double bill with Lambs, let alone any cinematic Lecter-ism outside of Hannibal Rising.  

I won’t be abandoning ship just yet, however. There’s too much potential here. This is a character who has never gotten her just due, one who has always been judged and unfairly diminished in light of the company she keeps, who also just so happen to be the quarry she hunts. She deserves the chance to stand or fall on her own terms. I actually found much of “The Silence is Over” absorbing – it certainly rewards established fans of the Lecter-verse who might want to take a flier – all the scene-setting, investigative legwork, and copper-tasting, post-traumatic nostalgia prior to the abrupt reveal of its endgame. It just lands with a thud, even as Starling herself is seen rediscovering her confidence. It’s not that Clarice lacks agency – in its 1993 setting, she’s usually the smartest, most capable person in any room, and knows it – or conventional foes – indeed, she’s practically surrounded by them, starting with literary doorstop turned hard-ass authority figure Paul Krendler (Michael Kudlitz, permanently mid-scowl) – and Breeds seems a worthy spiritual heir to her predecessors. The question that arises, still to be answered, is not whether Clarice is interesting in her own right, independent of her malevolent benefactor, but how long she can so remain in the absence of either a mind-bending mystery that can consume her or a legitimate foil to replace him. I saw a tantalizing glimpse of where the show might go in its best standalone scene, as Starling tersely converses by phone with Catherine Martin for the first time since their flight from Bill’s dungeon, and it quickly becomes obvious to us, if not quite to Clarice, just how damaged the ordeal left her. If Clarice is intent on tossing the established playbook and carving out its own niche, this fraught, exceedingly messy relationship may just be the key to getting there.

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