Created by Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet.
Starring Rebecca Breeds, Michael Cudlitz, Lucca De Oliveira, Kal Penn, Nick Sandow, Devyn A. Tyler and Marnee Carpenter.
After closing the Buffalo Bill case, FBI agent Clarice Starling is assigned to a newly created Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) task force. As she attempts to move on with her life, Clarice finds that her past just won’t let her go.
Since I started this annual October Horrors series, I made it an unnecessary mission to review, one year at a time, every entry in the Hannibal Lecter franchise. And last year, after looking at the beloved Hannibal TV series, I thought I had reached the end of my time with the franchise. Then, I remembered there was technically one more entry that had slipped under the radar. So, as a completist, I am obliged to review it. This is the short-lived quasi-sequel/prequel/stand-alone-ish Clarice.
Before we dive into the show itself, we need to explain why Clarice technically is and technically isn’t part of the Hannibal film/TV franchise. The main reason it isn’t is that, outside of occasional allusions, Hannibal Lecter never appears in the show, with not even his name being said once. Lecter’s absence is due to the same reason that Clarice never appeared in the Hannibal TV series; boring, complicated rights issues. One studio owns the film/TV rights to The Silence of the Lambs and thus is limited to only using characters who first appear in that novel. Another studio owns the rights to all the others and can use characters who first appear in those novels.
So, that means there is no Hannibal, no Will Graham, not even Jack Crawford. So, with this lack of deep connective tissue to the franchise, it puts extra pressure on the show to succeed without the man who is, without question, the main attraction. So, how does it fare? Well, it tries its best.
The series sets itself apart from the wider Hannibal franchise by acting as a loose sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, specifically the film. Taking place in the early 1990s and shortly after Clarice killed Buffalo Bill, the show attempts to fill in the blanks between the Lambs and Hannibal films.
As the title suggests, the show focuses on Clarice Starling, delving further into her life and past, primarily her trauma surrounding her father, a Marshal killed in the line of duty, and how the Buffalo Bill case has brought these feelings back. These moments about Clarice’s past are where the show is strongest, expanding upon the character and adding further clarity to the stories she shared with Lecter about her childhood. We even get flashbacks to the infamous screaming lambs.
As for its story outside of Clarice’s life, the show is a mixed bag. There is the obligatory “case of the week” format that, in fairness, the Hannibal TV series also did. Although the earlier show would often discard this approach for a few episodes to allow for character development, Clarice instead leans into it heavier and feels much more like a standard police procedural show than its predecessor ever did. And while this isn’t necessarily bad and adds variety to the stories, it still leaves much to be desired. Although, the show does limit its stand-alone cases, with much of the season alternating between two recurring sub-plots.
One subplot concerns an apparent serial killer that Clarice is brought in to help investigate in the pilot episode, quickly uncovering a conspiracy linked to clinical drug trials and a sinister pharmaceutical company. It’s not a terrible plotline, but it does feel kind of out of place in a franchise that primarily focuses on the psychology of serial killers. Although credit where it’s due, the show does manage to circle back to the psychological angle as Clarice comes up against a sinister corporate figure arguably more evil than even Hannibal Lecter.
The other, more engaging subplot concerns the plight of Katherine Martin, the surviving victim of Buffalo Bill, saved by Clarice at the end of Lambs. Martin is a shattered woman who, despite being alive and free, is still mentally trapped in Bill’s basement, unable to leave her home and with only her captor’s dog Precious (you don’t get Hannibal, but at least you get Precious) for company. It’s a way of looking at what trauma does to someone that creatively ties in with Clarice’s own battle with her demons and allows her to avoid falling into a similar cycle of depression and helplessness. The show even goes as far as to offer a tantalising glimpse into Bill’s backstory, with Katherine hunting down his mother in an apparent mission of revenge. Sadly, this story often feels secondary to the conspiracy plot line that, while not terrible, just doesn’t quite grab me in quite the same way.
Taking on the role made famous by an Oscar-winning Jodie Foster (and later by an underrated Julianne Moore) is Australian actress Rebecca Breeds. Adopting the familiar West Virginian twang used by her predecessors, Breeds does a solid job, imbuing Clarice with vulnerability and a steely determination to prove herself as a gifted investigator. Although it is an admirable performance, she doesn’t quite manage to make the character her own in the same way Hugh Dancy did with Will Graham. However, in fairness, the show’s relationship to the Lambs film somewhat forces Breeds to emulate Foster’s portrayal of the character.
The supporting cast is decent enough, with the ensemble playing their roles well, even if they sometimes seem to exist only to serve Clarice’s story and spout the obligatory procedural detective speak. Although the brief spots of backstory do add some colour to their lives, specifically the wise-cracking Clarke (Nick Sandow), a seasoned agent whose gallows humour masks a man haunted by his failure to find his missing sister. Although the cast is fine, they are often let down by the writing that often awkwardly shoehorns these backstories in, less as an attempt to develop the characters further but more as a means to tell the audience why a character behaves a certain way in a particular episode.
The other aspect of the writing that is awkward are the attempts at social commentary, with the show attempting to examine topics such as racial discrimination and the treatment of transgender people in the 1990s. While these efforts to tackle such weighty issues are obviously well intended, they can sometimes come across as heavy-handed and occasionally clumsy attempts to make the show feel more topical, particularly as wide-ranging debates surrounding on topics like race and transgender people became especially prominent shortly before the show aired. These attempts at social commentary might not always work, but I appreciate the show for at least trying to add a bit of substance to what could have just been another standard serial killer series.
The Hannibal series stood out among network TV shows thanks to its beautiful and nightmarish visual style that turned murder into a near work of art. Clarice, while having some moments of flourish, doesn’t quite do the same and mainly opts for a relatively standard visual style that, while occasionally mimicking Hannibal’s surrealist touch, with recurring scenes of moth hordes surrounding Starling, never quite takes the deep dive into eye-popping weirdness that the earlier show did. Although I did appreciate the overall dark and dingy visual palette that effectively emphasises the show’s grim tone while also making itself distinct from its more artsy and colourful predecessor.
Although an effort was made to move it from original network CBS to streaming platform Paramount+, Clarice looks unlikely to return for a second season. Although thankfully, its only season does bring its various storylines to a conclusion while still leaving the door open for future stories should the show return. Although I wouldn’t hold my breath. While the series hasn’t officially been cancelled, its return seems highly unlikely, with few to no updates on its status since the last episode aired over a year ago. And, in all honesty, that’s a shame.
I admit that going into Clarice, I didn’t have high hopes, with my love of the Hannibal TV series and my continued frustration over its cancellation and lack of revival clouding my judgement. However, I’ll admit, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared it would be. It has some good aspects to it, such as the performances and some of the storylines that, while nothing spectacular, were at least engaging enough to keep me watching until the end.
However, its reliance on procedural tropes, awkward attempts at social commentary and generally derivative approach to the material left much to be desired and improved, and sadly, it seems it will never have the chance to improve. In the end, Clarice is just another decent but severely flawed and unnecessary entry in the long-running Hannibal Lecter franchise. Maybe now it’s time to let it die.