By now, you’d think, we would have learned to leave Clarice Starling alone.
The dogged, haunted FBI trainee was so memorably played by Jodie Foster in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs” that Foster’s refusal to reprise the role made the sequel, 2001’s “Hannibal,” fatally unbalanced. No less a talent than Julianne Moore drowned in the role, unable to make the part her own and perhaps unwilling to try. Why bother, when it’s the Fosterian grit and quiet rage that made Starling feel like a peer to Anthony Hopkins’s genteel and deranged Hannibal Lecter?
“Clarice,” a new drama on CBS executive produced by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet, begins to solve the problem by removing a variable. Lecter’s absence from the series is not, or not solely, a creative choice; a complicated rights-holding situation means that MGM, which coproduces “Clarice,” is legally entitled to depict Starling, but not her tormentor. The result, over the first three episodes, is a show that dodges the problem Ridley Scott faced in making “Hannibal.” Its Clarice dwells in darkness, but is in nobody’s shadow. And the show she anchors is freed from the expectation to match “Silence’s” legendarily psychologically rich interpersonal dynamic, finding its stride as an unusually well-made network procedural. If this seems like a comedown for Clarice Starling, remember that this character’s ready to devote herself to whatever mission she’s assigned.
Here, Clarice is played by Australian actor Rebecca Breeds, with a sort of flickering alteration between annoyance and sparking ingenuity. We are a year after the conclusion of the Lecter/Buffalo Bill case: Clarice is notorious within and outside the FBI, and is coping by redoubling her characteristic obsessive focus. We’re told she’s subsisting on junk food, and we see her get through mandatory therapy sessions with a clenched insistence that she doesn’t think she’s changed. Fair enough, but her situation has: She’s forced to leverage her fame by working with franchise-long antagonist Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz) on a special task force. Attorney General Ruth Martin (a typically strong Jayne Atkinson), familiar as the mother of Buffalo Bill’s kidnap victim Catherine on film, leads them and is herself led by passion. Martin wants to halt what she perceives as the ever-present threat of serial killers. This obsessive streak can tend to blind the boss to certain facts of crime-solving, as well as to the trauma of her unhappy daughter (Marnee Carpenter). Clarice, on the case not by choice but eager to do a good job if she must, sees something other than sociopathy at the heart of the crimes the team investigates.
To say more would, perhaps, be to ruin the fun, and it would violate this of all franchises’ tenets to let a meal as decent as “Clarice” spoil before serving. But know this much: “Clarice” is much more about the grimly, glumly human cases that an FBI agent might face in a universe somewhat like ours than it is about the depredations of Lecter-scale monsters. Indeed, that’s the dynamic that plays out through the series’s early episodes. Dragged against her will into a morass she believed she’d left behind, Clarice finds that Lecter and Bill didn’t just leave her psyche scabbed and her dreamlife suffused with images of moths and skin-suits: They imbued in her the belief, seemingly well-earned, that she really can handle anything.
This is, perhaps, the option best available for a network-drama restaging of characters from Thomas Harris’s novels. (The Grand Guignol “Hannibal” series that aired on NBC feels in every sense like an exception for broadcast, one unlikely to be replicated anytime soon.) One imagines the version of “Clarice” that might have aired on premium cable, one in which flashbacks to Buffalo Bill sewing human flesh are more than seconds long, and in which Clarice’s trauma is expressed in fuller form than a sort of ambient dimness that follows her through every underlit scene.
Which is not necessarily a better version! This show could certainly be improved, from its sidelining of Ardelia, Clarice’s Black roommate and fellow FBI newbie (played on film by Kasi Lemmons and here by Devyn Tyler) to its somewhat hamhanded attempts to situate us in time. (The show takes place shortly after the 1993 siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which it makes clear by staging an alternate version of Waco and having characters refer to this fictional cult as, potentially, “another Waco.”) But the show also avoids past pitfalls. In attempting to match the richness and depth of Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs,” the Hannibal Lecter franchise has often defaulted to an unpleasant reliance on shock, unconvincingly dressed-up in the skin-suit of sophistication. (This is particularly on display in the Julianne Moore film, in which repulsive body horror is treated as a witty form of interpersonal banter.) Watching Demme’s film, our loyalties shift between Foster and Lecter; here, Breeds’s inherent sympathy — the just-trying-to-get-through-the-day spin she places on lines Foster might have spat out — serves a story that needs to have our hearts with Clarice throughout. Breeds is a great network lead — an undervalued skill-set — who sells us on Clarice’s anger but shines especially when Clarice finds a way not past it, but through it. Clarice, here, has a genuine sense of mischief, and, shockingly, it doesn’t feel out of place.
All of which serves a show with more going on within than one might first surmise. Clarice was brought back to life onscreen for reasons beyond that she’s a familiar name, and — gratifyingly, if due as much to realities of the business as artistic decisions — beyond that she once met a charismatic cannibal. In the wake of her tangling with him, Clarice is at once recovering and becoming something new. She’s coming, further, into her own power. “Clarice” is made with curiosity, confidence, and craft, and it comes as a happy surprise to say that it cares more about its protagonist’s mind than anyone else’s insides.
“Clarice” debuts Feb. 11 at 10:00 p.m. E.T. on CBS.