The Silence of the Lambs becomes another bland procedural.

By Darren Franich
February 01, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Clarice embarrasses itself right away. The Silence of the Lambs sequel series (premiering Feb. 11 at 10 p.m. on CBS) begins with Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds) in a therapy session that doubles as a "Previously On" sequence. It's one year since the FBI rookie hunted the skinsuited maniac Buffalo Bill. Their showdown provided the fearsome climax of 1991's Lambs movie, with director Jonathan Demme staging their darkened duel inside Bill's hellish mancave. Clarice substitutes quick-cut flashbacks that look like bad cosplay. It's a clip reel of fan serviced trauma. Goodbye horses, hello reboot.

Starting from 1986's Red Dragon, Thomas Harris' blood-opera-of-the-mind literature has made for splendid cinema, cash-in sequel-prequels, camp silliness, and a couple projects representing all of the above. Clarice marks the first time this canon has ever been boring. The premiere finds Starling buried in the behavioral sciences lab and struggling through the emotional toil left by Buffalo Bill. Her self-imposed isolation ends when the Attorney General calls. Yes, Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson), whose daughter was nearly Bill's last victim, is now the fake Janet Reno of Clarice's 1993.

The AG asks Starling to join the Violent Crimes Apprehension Unit. In real life, ViCAP is the FBI's data collation program, a longstanding initiative of dubious benefit to the law enforcement cause. Here, it's a squad of grimaces led by Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz). He introduces his men with one trait apiece: "Esquivel's our army sniper guy, Tripathi's our library, Clark's our lie detector." That's all for character development. We just met them and they're already examining a brutalized dead woman, stabbed and bitten and naked, her private parts rather daintily covered by fallen leaves. A broadcast network must have standards, after all.

Clarice wants to balance weekly cases and a serialized mystery, plus an in-depth portrait of Clarice's own psyche. Those bite marks match wounds on two other victims. Is ViCAP hunting a psychopath — or is that just what a non-crazy killer wants them to think? At dramatic moments, Clarice hallucinates a very funny-looking computer-animated moth. Meanwhile, all the FBI agents stand around like fifth bananas. I don't begrudge anyone chasing that sweet procedural money, but surely Kal Penn has better things to do than play a "library" guy, relegated to lines like "Here we go," "What's happening?", "This is not good," and "Ewwww."

Nobody mentions a certain debonair cannibal because nobody legally can, though the opening scene references how the protagonist's "last therapist was an inmate." Suggesting that Clarice Starling was devastated by Buffalo Bill but never thought about Hannibal Lecter is a little like asking Mrs. Lincoln what she really thought about the play. Yet this workaround carries a compelling possibility. Jodie Foster's performance in Silence was as rich as Anthony Hopkins' was, but Harris himself lost track of the character in his follow-up book, and the Hannibal film's recasting offered the rare example of bad Julianne Moore acting.

Clarice wants to focus less on the murderer than on the investigator: her tormented childhood memories, her dedication to psychology as a crimesolving tool, her struggle as a woman in a male-dominated field. All of this material was covered in Silence, and the early additions here don't indicate much imagination. (Turns out that besides her previously-established sad flashbacks about her father, she also has sad flashbacks about her brother.) But you can see new resonance in the central trauma narrative. Co-creator Jenny Lumet has publicly discussed her own experience of sexual assault, and Clarice explicitly reimagines the Lecter mythology into a survivor's tale. When Agent Starling catches a killer in the premiere, the nation's press assemble to ask for the man's name. She responds by listing his victims: "Their names are more important." A blunt point, but a worthy one, and there are shadowy appearances by Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), the character who spent most of Silence imprisoned down Bill's well. Now she's an agoraphobe whose mere presence pulls Starling back into their shared nightmare. "You think you can rewrite the story," Catherine insists, "But you can't."

Credit: Brooke Palmer/CBS

Clarice wants to rewrite its own story. And worth pointing out that Lumet wrote Rachel Getting Married, one of the late Demme's final films. But even if you believe this sequel has the most sincere artistic intentions — and, to be honest, I don't — there's a big problem here. Everything about Clarice has been done, successfully and terribly and constantly, by a whole generation of CBS procedurals. In actual 1993, the network made detecting look like a retirement home hobby, with Angela Lansbury and Dick Van Dyke respectively writing and diagnosing murders. When that version of CBS tried for sexy violence, the results looked like a midlife crisis. Do please google Raven, where a retired ninja soldier solves Hawaiian crime alongside his trusty partner (I quote from the opening credits) "Lee Majors as Ski."

I yearn for the droll pleasures of Jessica Fletcher's pleasant coastal killtown, but it's not hard to understand what a supernova Silence of the Lambs was next to stuff like that. The film ravished audiences with Demme's awe-inspiring direction, Ted Tally's clever script, and the two magnetic leads. Pale imitations just copied the grotesquerie, which is one sick joke of Clarice's prologue. Three decades post-Silence, skin-sewing and bloody gutshots and malevolent torture are a part of the CBS brand identity. What was once hard-R content for a boundary-bursting horror movie can be the pre-credits come-on for any Criminal Minds-y trip to the corpse factory.

I don't mind gross extremity, but Clarice wants shock value to cover up its sins against basic narrative sense. In the premiere, an autistic child responds to zero outside stimulus until Starling asks him if he knows a key person of interest — at which point he looks at her with obvious affirmation. Well, that was easy. In the second and third episodes, Starling interrogates shady suspects until they just suddenly start confessing to major crimes. I get that she's supposed to be a brilliant reader of people. But even the Mentalist needed to work harder to get inside people's heads, and he was the Mentalist.

Logic doesn't need to matter. After all, NBC's wonderful Lecter-focused series Hannibal was a fever dream of palatial monstrosity, imagining a netherworld Euro-Baltimore full of rigidly aesthetic serial killers. It was brilliant for several reasons, but you can certainly get away with a lot of absurdity when you've got style to spare. Whereas Clarice's grayscale self-seriousness is an offense to pop culture history. The second episode ends on a nice song playing while Starling waves to a cute kid and remembers how fun it was to make snow angels with her brother. You are not allowed to make a piece of Thomas Harris intellectual property so sentimental, so cheaply cathartic, so lame. What's happening? This is not good. Ewwwww.

ViCAP has a stealth sixth member, Ardelia Mapp (Devyn A. Tyler), Clarice's old friend from the Academy. She's an Assistant U.S. Attorney, and it's possible that future episodes will dig deeper into the double difficulty of being a Black woman in the retrograde halls of Justice. Starling herself runs afoul of fratty feds who torment her with rather specific chauvinist pranks. But if you allow that Clarice wants to shade complexity into its portrait of the '90s FBI, you also have to confront a more urgent matter. When Krendler initially vanquishes Clarice to the back bench, it's a prime example of misogyny swirling around her. But by episode 2, it's clear Krendler is just another gruff boss with a heart of gold, willing to follow the young agent down unlikely paths for the cause of good.

Really, Clarice writers? Paul Krendler, a secret nice guy? You can't blame Cudlitz for being likable; "cuddle" is practically his last name. But Thomas Harris wrote Krendler as a vain cad, openly dismissive of Clarice's talents and more than a little fixated on her looks. Ron Vawter played him in the Lambs movie, a minor character granted a major introduction. When he takes over the Buffalo Bill investigation, the camera swoops forward, framing him in tableau with a portrait of J. Edgar Hoover at his most desiccated:

In the first proper dialogue scene in Lambs, we find out Clarice once grilled a senior FBI agent about "the bureau's Civil Rights record in the Hoover years." So Krendler's meant to be a stark contrast to the film's actual hero. He's a phantom of the Bureau's terrorizing past — or just another dumb G-man off the assembly line.

In the Hannibal novel, he reappeared as a corrupt bureaucrat, and Ray Liotta played him on the big screen with maximum sleaze. In the stunning climax of Ridley Scott's very loony film, Hannibal barbecues a slice of Krendler's brain on a hot pot and feeds it to the man while he's still alive. Doped out of his mind, Krendler says grace. Somehow, he uses the prayer to insult Starling and flirt with her. It's a visceral image of darkly comedic comeuppance, the privileged predatory male gazing while he eats himself alive. Dr. Lecter sardonically compliments him: "Even the Apostle Paul couldn't have done better. He hated women, too."

Hoover bad, Catholicism bad: Maybe this is all too heavy for the network airing two worshipful FBI shows. Notably, Clarice's second episode centers on an explicitly Waco-esque standoff with a secessionist militia. But this is a version of Waco where nice and noble federal agents do a swell job. There's revisionism and then there's propaganda, and the softening of Krendler sums up how hard Clarice works to sand down its source material's anti-authoritarian edge.

CBS did find room in its soul for the gleefully irreverent Evil. And if you're not aiming to be transgressively weird with a Silence of the Lambs sequel — well, why bother? Clarice's other co-creator is Alex Kurtzman, a practiced IP hack known for Transformers, various Star Treks, a failed Mummy, and the worst Spider-Man. That's a lot of money made off other people's originality. Can't we institute some kind of limit on this stuff, like maybe a person can only work in four pre-existing universes per decade? His participation makes Clarice feel even more like a dastardly act of franchise capitalism. I'd believe you if you told me Kurtzman was planning a Buffalo Bill prequel series, or a throwback procedural where Clarice Starling's dad solves '60s crime.

When you remove the comedy and the horror, when you get the luscious fantasy and the brutal reality wrong, what's left for your star to chew on? Not much. Breeds uncomfortably juggles a tricky accent with the need to know everything immediately while simultaneously struggling through a lifetime of flashbacks. Catching Buffalo Bill turned Clarice into an uncomfortable celebrity, and her fame adds a vaguely superhero-ish motivation: Can she be the hero America already thinks she is? (Spoiler alert: Yes!) Foster's Clarice battled personal demons and professional animosity, too. But she was also cool as hell, slyly undercutting all preening patriarchs, visually dominant even when she was a foot smaller than every man in the elevator. Breeds subtracts all the swagger from the sorrow, a decision that matches Clarice's colorless visual palette.

There's a conspiracy subplot that could build somewhere, with multiple murders connected upward to corporate malfeasance. Maybe there are expansive plans for Catherine; right now, she's petting Buffalo Bill's dog and doing upside down sit-ups. I'm skeptical. In the third episode, the team tries to get an assassin to reveal his secrets. Clarice figures out the prisoner was a sniper. What lucky coincidence that ViCAP has its own army sniper guy, Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira). He goes into the interrogation room, and the two men bond over bad things they did with big guns. Clarice looks on from outside, her expository dialogue underlining the criminal's wild overreactions. "Hold on, he's blinking!" she says, and "His voice just pitched higher!" His. Voice. Just. Pitched. Higher. Did someone really think this is what Clarice Starling should be doing? Clarice devours real and imagined history, and what comes out the other side is the umpteenth drama about grisly murders and tough cops who care. At least be a nice cannibal and add some flavoring. D+

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