First episode impressions: ‘Clarice’ (TV review)

A

dding both cachet and pressure, “Clarice” (Thursdays, CBS) has the weight of “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) behind it as it chronicles Special Agent Starling’s 10-year period between the movie versions of “Lambs” and “Hannibal” (2001). If you watch the first episode, “The Silence is Over,” with a checklist in hand, it checks all the boxes, proving that creators Alex Kurtzman (recent “Star Trek” projects) and Jenny Lumet know those films and author Thomas Harris’ source material.

Giving this show a fighting chance, Rebecca Breeds is an excellent Starling; the casting directors found someone who looks like Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore morphed together, and luckily, she can act too. Notably, she nails the West Virginia accent originated by Foster, and in a more natural way than Moore.

Both making “Clarice” consistent with “Lambs” and hampering its likability is that Starling doesn’t have a lovable ensemble of helpers around her; the antagonists dominate her life. As Starling’s boss, Krendler, Michael Cudlitz is unrecognizable from his “Walking Dead” days, partly because he’s sans facial hair, but also because he’s (purposely) a crushing weight on both his charge and the show – the personification of the bureaucracy that keeps her down.

Also in that camp is Senator Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), who aims to rack up political clout by making Clarice her personal superstar, serial-killer-catching agent. She’s the mother of Catherine (Marnee Carpenter), Buffalo Bill’s lone escapee – thanks to Starling. Not that Catherine is thankful; in her phone call to Clarice, she has gone almost as mad as Bill.

Among current shows, “Evil” is much warmer, while not skimping on its dive into evil. And the three-season “Hannibal” is way more inventive than “Clarice,” which by comparison is formulaic.

So “Clarice” finds our heroine navigating the bureaucratic morass, while her FBI-mandated counseling has done nothing to help her with that, let alone her trauma from the case that made her both loved and hated. (Many colleagues think she lucked into catching Bill.)

The young agent satisfyingly rebuffs her handlers and tells reporters that this new killer is a hitman, not a serial killer, and that the case is ongoing. She does have a solid partner in Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira), and forensics man Grigoryan (Kal Penn) gives a slight nod of approval during that presser. And the scenes with former roommate Ardelia Mapp (Devyn A. Tyler) – with whom Clarice is crashing in D.C. — have warmth, including Clarice snuggling with towels fresh from the dryer, a nice nod to “Lambs.” I’m happy to see Ardelia is a series regular.

Still, by its nature, “Clarice” doesn’t have that enjoyable teamwork quality that provides an escape from the darkness in all these post-“X-Files” shows. (I’ve always used the term “post-‘X-Files,’ ” but it should be noted that Agent Scully very much comes from Starling, so in that sense “Clarice” comes full circle.)

“Clarice” has some “X-Files” traits, almost using a Mark Snow-style wall of ambient music, although it doesn’t go all in. It also gives locations in Courier type at the bottom of the screen – underlined here, to be its own thing.

“The Inside” (2005) might be the closest comparison to “Clarice,” in that both shows are about realistic (rather than supernatural) killers with weird fetishes; and superficially, Clarice wears a female-cut men’s suit like the heroine of that show.

But I can’t help but think that, among current shows, “Evil” is much warmer (thanks to the group dynamic) while not skimping on its dive into evil. And the late, lamented three-season “Hannibal” is way more inventive than “Clarice,” which by comparison is formulaic.

(By the way, “Clarice” now gives us another example of a franchise going back to its original timeline after doing a reboot – as “Hannibal” was a separate timeline from the films. “Cobra Kai” also does this, continuing from the original “Karate Kid” films rather than the remake. No one is confused, yet Disney claims people would be confused if the “Star Wars” Legends timeline continued. OK, rant over.)

“Clarice” is solid and professional in the way it respects what Harris and the “Lambs” filmmakers did. (Lecter, by the way, won’t be mentioned outright in “Clarice” due to licensing rights – although he is obliquely referenced by her FBI-mandated psychiatrist. In a way, it’s a good thing, because the “Hannibal” movie does seem like her first reunion with him, even if it’s not strictly stated.)

Aside from the coldness of our heroine’s workplace, this series initially strikes me as not different enough from the dozen or so previous shows that were influenced by “Lambs” via “The X-Files.” At this point, I can’t imagine “Clarice” becoming as grotesque as TV’s “Hannibal” or as cozy as “Evil.” It’s boxed in by its consistency with the narrative and style of “Lambs,” but at the same time, it seems unlikely to reach that level of quality. However, it has earned another episode from me and the chance to prove me wrong.

Click here to visit our Horror Zone.