2 out of 5
Created by: Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet
covers season 1
Yer in a tough spot, Clarice: you’ve undoubtedly gotten a series deal by linking yourself to a beloved property (our title character being the same named FBI agent from Silence of the Lambs), but that means you’re now in the position of having to both please fans of that beloved property, and also provide them with something new… that also doesn’t violate some undefined guidelines of their fandom. Even tougher, “fandom” is probably overstating it: yes, there are people who know the books and the whole film series, but it’s also just a classic movie – lots of exposure. Lots of casual viewers with hazy memories of what they believe to be a great movie (that they maybe haven’t watched in decades), and now here’s the prestige TV show sequel. And for kicks, let’s try to address Buffalo Bill’s representation in the movie, and its impact on the trans community, because that should be easy to handle.
Setting that aside for a moment – though, as a preview, I actually felt the show handled this really well, though I’m surely not one to speak with any authority on the matter – the concept here reminds me of what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had to deal with when it started, given both the springboard of the Marvel fanbase, but then also being quite limited by it. The difference, though, is that the Marvel U has enough room such that the show could find its footing and buck its leash; Clarice, though is back at that tough spot: your path forward would either be something that navigates through already covered material – still limited – or you try to serialize things and turn it into a cop show, which then doesn’t have much tie to your source material, except your main character.
The latter seemed to be how Clarice’s creators initially planned things: Agent Starling (Rebecca Breeds), suffering from a tarnished reputation post the events of the film, is placed back into rotation on a VICAP task force dedicated to murderers and the like, and for the first couple of episodes, it’s procedurals-like-usual, with Starling having to earn the trust of her new teammates by going rogue all the time and stumbling over her words and then saving the day. It’s a questionable characterization, I suppose, going from the film version to this more timid TV one, but if Starling is read as trying to deny the trauma she’s been through by getting back to work, it follows, and I found Breeds to be quite excellent throughout, balancing the mix of strength and self-doubt. I liked this version of the show – though it was exceedingly generic – but then again, I have zero attachment to the original movie.
Hereafter, though, Clarice starts to sprawl off in various directions: it creates a season long conspiracy involving Big Pharma maybe hiding some worth-killing-for-it research in the seemingly unlinked murders the VICAP team investigates; it tries to expand on Clarice’s background with overly arty flashback memories, unlocked during therapy sessions; it tries to juggle race politics in its 1990s setting via Clarice’s roommate and coworker, Ardelia (Devyn A. Tyler); and then it tries to solve the back catalogue of leftovers from the movie, including Clarice’s relationship with the would-be Bill victim Clarice had saved, Catherine (Marnee Carpenter), as well as her mother, AG Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), who’d put Clarice on the VICAP team. Choosing any one of these could have been sufficient, but we pursue all of them, in a sticky way that tries to make them all interrelated when they’re not – and don’t need to be – and the high gloss stylization, trying to bring in some of that Hannibal weirdness, makes much of the mundane dialogue come across a lot more dunderheaded than it probably would if just played straight.
Towards the end of the first season, as we’re able to shed some subplots and zero in on a focus, the show is able to get back to that procedural feel, and gets back some momentum. The aforementioned trans issue seems like it’s going to be relegated to “a very special episode” moment, but then the related characters are actually full enveloped into the story in an effective manner, making it all actually seem relevant. That’s a good aspect to have made relevant, considering how much else of the show feels like it’s at war with itself for focus. And at a higher level, there are some solid performances here, with all of the VICAP team being pretty endearing. But the writing doesn’t have much convincing cop tang to it, and with the indecisive approach, it’s a show that never quite gets over the hump of making you think there’s a reason to watch, besides it being on, and you having the time.