National Post (National Edition)
Clarice's time to shine
FBI DETECTIVE IS TAKING CENTRE STAGE ON SHOW BASED ON SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Debuts Thursday, CBS/Global
By now, you'd think, we would have learned to leave Clarice Starling alone.
The dogged 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.
Clarice, a new drama on CBS, begins to solve the problem by removing a variable.
Hannibal Lecter's absence is not solely a creative choice; a complicated rights-holding situation means that MGM, which co-produces 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 rich interpersonal dynamic, finding its stride as an unusually well-made network procedural.
Clarice is played by Australian actor Rebecca Breeds. 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 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.
She's forced to leverage her fame by working with 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 everpresent threat of serial killers. 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 ruin the fun. But know this much: Clarice is much more about the grim human cases an FBI agent might face normally than it is about Lecter-scale monsters.
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 A. Tyler) to its somewhat ham-handed 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 The Silence of the Lambs, the Hannibal Lecter franchise has often defaulted to shock unconvincingly dressed-up as sophistication.
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.
Breeds is a great network lead, an undervalued skillset, who sells us on Clarice's anger but shines especially when Clarice finds a way through it. Clarice, here, has a genuine sense of mischief.
All of which serves a show with more going on than one might first surmise. Clarice was brought back to life onscreen for reasons beyond that she's a familiar name and once met a charismatic cannibal.
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.