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‘Clarice’: Grisly ‘Lambs’ spinoff series comes in like a lion

At their heart, FBI Agent Starling’s new mysteries are old-fashioned and cliched, but they offer some intrigue.

On CBS’ “Clarice,” the intuitive crime-solver (Rebecca Breeds) continue to deal with sexism from her colleagues at the FBI.
CBS

It feels as if Clarice Starling has been part of our world forever, but she’d be only about 53 years old in 2021, given the character was an FBI trainee just out of college in “The Silence of The Lambs” (1991), and she was in her early 30s in “Hannibal” (2001).

By which time she looked more like Julianne Moore than Jodie Foster.

The new CBS weekly procedural “Clarice” takes us back to the early 1990s, one year after Clarice entered into an unsettling bond with Dr. Hannibal Lecter and stopped the serial killer Buffalo Bill — and it’s a clever concept, as the events from the movie are still fresh (or should we say rotten) in Clarice’s memory, and also because the early 1990s time period makes it more convenient for the writers to largely eschew cell phones and laptops and drones, etc., in favor of an old-fashioned albeit grisly crime-solver procedural.

Based on the first three episodes made available for review, “Clarice” is a promising yet uneven effort with some intriguing storylines, including the hunt for a serial killer who might actually be a hired hitman and a standoff with a cult compound with echoes of Waco. But we’re also hit with a few too many overdone clichés, e.g., the heroine who is always in the right place at the right time and notices things overlooked by everyone else at the crime scene.

Showrunners Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet have made the bold move of re-creating certain key scenes from Jonathan Demme’s classic film every time Clarice Starling (played by the Australian actress Rebecca Breeds, doing a solid Appalachian accent) experiences PTSD flashbacks to the day she found a severely traumatized Catherine Martin at the bottom of a well and eventually rescued Catherine after gunning down the notorious serial kidnapper/killer Buffalo Bill. Marnee Carpenter takes over the role of Catherine that was so memorably played by Brooke Smith (now co-starring in ABC’s “Big Sky”) in the film.

A year later, Catherine is starving herself and spends her days and nights holed up in a room with Precious, the dog she rescued from Buffalo Bill. Catherine’s mother Ruth (now played by Jayne Atkinson), who was a senator in the movie, is now the U.S. attorney general, while Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz) is Clarice’s boss at the FBI, and Clarice’s best friend Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler) remains her strongest supporter. It’s cool to see these new iterations of names from Clarice’s life, but even if you’ve never seen “The Silence of the Lambs” (is that possible?), “Clarice” is so straightforward and works from such a familiar blueprint you’d be able to digest the gist of it even as certain references would fly past.

Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), whose daughter Clarice saved in “The Silence of the Lambs,” now is the U.S. attorney general working with Clarice’s FBI boss (Michael Cudlitz).
CBS

(The one character who won’t appear in “Clarice” and can’t even be referenced by name is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, as producing studio MGM doesn’t have the rights to the character’s name. This leads to some creative verbal contortions, e.g., when a colleague of Clarice’s snidely remarks that her “last therapist was an inmate at the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane who … ate his patients.”)

As was the case in the film, Clarice is constantly dealing with subtle and overt sexism from the male-dominated FBI, and from the condescending therapist (Shawn Doyle), who doesn’t think Clarice is fit to return to the field. Time and again, Clarice arrives at a crime scene populated by dozens of agents who roll their eyes at her mere presence and scoff at her theories — and are stunned when Clarice’s instincts turn out to be right. When are these boys going to learn? She’s CLARICE STARLING. Her instincts and observational skills are practically at the superhero level.

“Clarice” is about as edgy and graphic as a network series gets, with a steady stream of closeups of mutilated corpses. Unfortunately, the pounding score is an exercise in overkill, e.g., every time a flash photograph is taken at a crime scene, there’s an ear-rattling music sting that sounds like someone pounding on a castle door. The gimmicky effect actually undercuts the gravitas of the scene.

Based on the first three episodes, “Clarice” falls somewhere between “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Red Dragon” in the canon of Thomas Harris adaptations. It doesn’t have the operatic ambition of the NBC series “Hannibal,” but it’s certainly more intriguing than another “CSI” spinoff. Given how many sequels, prequels and spinoffs already have sprung from the unforgettable characters Harris created in his stunningly vivid and brilliant novels, it’s probably only a matter of time before we get a limited series or movie about the 50-ish Clarice — and eventually a “Murder, She Wrote” type drama with Clarice in retirement in some quiet community where murders occur at an alarming rate, while the 100-year-old Hannibal is still her pen pal.