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Thomas Harris’ best-selling crime novels, starting with 1981’s Red Dragon, have spawned an entire universe of serial killer thrills. Centering most often around the exploits of erudite cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter, Harris’ stories have inspired sequels, prequels, remakes, books (four of ’em), movies (five of those) and TV shows (currently, two). Also, there was a musical (Off-Off-Broadway, but still). Harris’ primary contribution to pop culture is elevating the mythical serial killer from his roots in “lowbrow” horror cinema (Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th) to mainstream, literate respectability. Since Hollywood and, by extension, American audiences no longer seem able to go more than five years without a Hannibal Lecter fix, its no real surprise to see CBS launching a late-in-the-game follow-up to Harris’ mega-hit Silence of the Lambs.
Set in 1993, a year or so after the events of Jonathan Demme’s Academy Award-sweeping adaptation of Harris’ novel, “Clarice” puts poor, traumatized FBI newbie Clarice Starling front-and-center. Played by Oscar winner Jodie Foster in the original, our Clarice is now embodied by Australian actress Rebecca Breeds (best known for her work in “Pretty Little Liars”). Breeds ties on a thick West Virginia accent to tackle the titular role. Those are some big shoes to fill, but Breeds puts in the effort to make an impression. Seems that, following the events of Silence of the Lambs (collaborating with Dr. Lecter, defeating Buffalo Bill and barely clinging to life in general), Clarice went into a sort of self-imposed exile, hiding behind a desk in the basement of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. It’s not just the grisly stuff that led Clarice to withdraw and get stuck making weekly visits to a barely sympathetic headshrinker. She seems as traumatized by the dogged reporters and tabloid fame that followed her in the wake of the famous case as she is by Buffalo Bill’s old chamber of horrors.
But a call from new U.S. District Attorney Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter) finds our heroine dragged to Washington, DC to spearhead a puzzling murder investigation with the newly minted Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). Catherine, you see, is the politically powerful mother to Ruth Martin, the young woman Clarice rescued from Buffalo Bill’s well. Despite her apprehension to talk about or even think about the case that made her famous, Clarice feels she owes a certain responsibility to Ruth and her mother.
Uncomfortably ensconced in DC, Clarice is soon butting heads with her tough-talking new boss, Paul Krendler (Michael Kudlitz from “The Walking Dead”), and trying to find friends among her standoffish new VICAP colleagues (including Lucca De Oliveira and Kal Penn). Seems that Clarice’s sudden crime-fighting fame (unwanted or not) made her something of a pariah among her fellow federal agents.
Clarice’s “fish out of water” position (new town, new boss, new co-workers) is, at first, a little jarring. Evidently, CBS secured the rights to Clarice Starling, but could not use any of the characters featured in NBC’s “Hannibal.” And yes, that includes Hannibal Lecter himself. Everyone on “Clarice” makes vague reference to a certain scary forensic psychiatrist, but generally avoids mentioning him by name. While having a Clarice Starling TV series sans Hannibal Lecter sounds like, I don’t know, a Gotham City series without Batman, it’s actually nice to get a break from the overused boogeyman. Clarice is a decent character and deserves a chance to shine on her own. … And to be honest, if this first season doesn’t end on an ominous shot of a mysterious figure in shadow sipping Chianti—contractual wranglings be damned—I’ll be shocked.
Thanks to some monetary assistance from big-time executive producer Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Star Trek, The Mummy), “Clarice” boasts quite a bit more cinematic style than CBS’ usual alphabet soup of police procedurals (“CSI,” “NCIS,” “JAG,” “FBI”). The symbolism of Demme’s film goes into overdrive here, with winking shots of lambs and moths and plenty of knowing flashbacks to sewing machines and wicker baskets. The pilot episode sets up a storyline with some decent intrigue and a possibly interesting twist. From the looks of it, the “serial killer” case Clarice has been brought in to work on might not be the work of an actual serial killer, but someone trying to cover up a major conspiracy. This controversial theory of Clarice’s causes her compatriots to doubt her vaunted behavioral profiling abilities. That dramatic friction is laid on a bit thick, with everyone at the FBI acting like our main character is a complete nut job—even when every one of her hunches pans out. This is accompanied by the occasional heavy-handed dialogue. (Krendler: “I’m trying to protect you.” Starling: “From what?” Krendler: “… Yourself.”)
How well the series balances the ratcheted-up interpersonal drama, the symbolic style and the grisly mysteries at the heart of it all remains to be seen. If series writers can ground these characters in reality and give them credible internal lives, it will help immensely. (So far, everyone other than Clarice is merely a catalyst or a prop.) But for now, “Clarice” is a decent enough fix for fans of Harris’ work and anyone looking for some serial killer thrills.