‘Clarice’ Needs to Go Dark or Go Home

A new series aims to retell 'The Silence of The Lambs,' but it's missing some key elements.

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews a new take on The Silence of The Lambs: CBS’ Clarice.

The CBS crime series Clarice has some big shoes to fill. Created by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet (Star Trek: Discovery), it’s the latest screen adaptation of Thomas Harris’ popular book series involving genius cannibal killer Hannibal Lecter.

Except for this time, there’s no Lecter. The character brought to life by multiple actors in film adaptations and then on the small screen in Bryan Fuller’s baroque vision Hannibal, is little more than a shadow in this series. Instead, the latest iteration positions a young Agent Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) front and center. All the while, due to a strange behind-the-scenes legal situation, there is never a mention of the infamous killer’s name.

Without a clear central antagonist, Clarice runs the risk of fading into the backdrop of gray-toned, police-and-military themed procedurals that tend to make up the CBS prime-time drama lineup. If considered as a standalone series, the three episodes that were available for screening at the time of publication are intriguing enough, building up the protagonist as a strong-willed, folksy hero-type.

Breeds is striking as the central character, and the series’ visuals are occasionally striking as well, even as Clarice quickly leans towards the case-of-the-week structure. Unfortunately, though, Clarice doesn’t ask us to consider it as a standalone series. Instead, it relies immediately on viewers’ familiarity with the source material, which unwisely opens up the door to inter-textual comparison.

Clarice takes place in 1993, with the traumatized agent returning to duty for the first time after the Buffalo Bill case of The Silence of the Lambs. She’s working with the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program as a behavioral scientist, though she’s less Will Graham and more Justified’s Raylan Givens (sans charm), quick on the draw and haunted by her rough upbringing in Appalachia.

When she’s not at work, Clarice is in work-required therapy, at home with her roommate and coworker Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler, who deserves more screen-time), or dodging the calls of Bill’s sole survivor, Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter). It seems it’s hard to unwind when your work is all around you, and your claim to fame is the one memory you wish you could forget.

So far, the series’ most compelling choice has been to deliberately center the women of Harris’ novels. In the first episode, Clarice reads crime scenes for clues in a decidedly feminine way, noting a victim’s wedding ring and nail polish color before earning side-eyed looks from her team when she describes the way stab wounds “don’t kiss.” This might sound frustratingly cutesy, but Clarice is stone-cold serious, and she’s right most of the time despite her superiors’ lack of confidence.

She dolls herself up to talk to a narcissistic suspect, emphasizes the names of murdered women in a press conference, and correctly guesses that a victim hid her secret files in a box of sanitary napkins. These nods to a particular female kind of intellect can lay it on thick, though, as when she throws around the word “gaslighting” in a moment that’s supposed to read as empowered but misses its mark by a mile.

When it comes to thrills, chills, and even characterization, Clarice has plenty of room to grow, but so far, its take on a well-worn psychological horror story is a bit bloodless. The first few episodes are also nowhere near as creatively disgusting as past iterations of the story, offering only glimpses of greyed corpses and Buffalo Bills’ dreaded skin suits. The only “horror” so far comes from the obvious PTSD that stalks both Clarice and the Martin family, and even that is pretty muted.

Clarice’s anxieties manifest in fractured flashbacks and moth-laden nightmares, while Catherine, who was held captive by Bill, starves herself — he liked bigger girls, remember? — and refuses to leave her room. Meanwhile, Catherine’s attorney general mother, Ruth (Jayne Atkinson), is publicly crusading against crime, trying to remind lawmakers that violence is personal and not just political.

Speaking of politics, the series’ first few episodes present a somewhat muddled ideology. The two best adaptations of Harris’ novels, The Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal, are both bone-chillingly bleak, riddled with nihilistic villains who often get the last laugh. Clarice seems poised for a more traditionally moralistic story, as exemplified by a somewhat out-of-place monologue that Clarice delivers in the pilot, one that involves both book banning and a vaguely libertarian pastor.

It’s tough to reconcile the series’ first few episodes — not to mention CBS’ habit of airing shows that draw strong conservative viewership — with source material that revels in humankind’s most dark-hearted desires. Harris’ book series and its past onscreen counterparts have always been, above all else, transgressive. Any adaptation worth watching should be as well.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)