By the end of the first episode of Clarice, FBI agent Clarice Starling is once again standing in front of assembled media, explaining to them that the man they just caught isn’t a serial killer, and there’s something far more pedestrian (but arguably more nefarious) going on. She disobeys a direct order from her superior officer and tells the truth, because she thinks—and says, more than once—it’s important to speak up for the women who can no longer speak for themselves. It’s a noble sentiment, accompanied by impulsive and often ill-considered behavior that suggests she should be returned post-haste to the behavioral science lab basement from which she’s been summoned, wraith-like, to join this very public team of investigators. Starling seems potentially unstable, and is definitely suffering from PTSD. But that’s how you know you’re watching a CBS procedural: Logic must be shunted aside in favored of watching telegenic people hunt killers in ways that fly in the face of ethics, but are more exciting. Onward with the brutal slayings!
CBS’ newest show tries to split the difference between ongoing character study and a typical network procedural, and ends up falling pretty firmly on the side of the latter. Despite a first half hour that spends a lot of time reestablishing the character of Clarice Starling from The Silence Of The Lambs, the second half of this pilot lurches right into case-of-the-week territory. It may technically be unresolved—the man who killed the victims we see this episode is caught, but turns out to be working for someone else, suggesting this corporate whistleblower/drug trial coverup will be the overarching storyline for the season—but it’s still a tidy beginning-and-end narrative that checks all the boxes of a standard crime drama. “It was a quid pro quo,” Starling says early on to explain her arrangement with Lecter, and you can’t help but wonder if she’s secretly referring to the existence of Clarice on the CBS spring schedule, nestled amongst the other cozily unchallenging series in its lineup.
The pilot immediately sets up our backstory, via the time-honored method of having a therapist pepper someone with questions so that viewers can get an easily digestible “tell, don’t show” summation of their current state. It’s been one year since the events of The Silence Of The Lambs, and novice FBI agent Clarice Starling (The Originals’ Rebecca Breeds) has spent the ensuing time avoiding the press and attendant minor celebrity she accrued—instead hiding in a basement behavioral science lab, as her therapist acidly notes. She’s clearly still suffering from the psychological trauma of the Buffalo Bill case, though she denies it, and gets summoned to D.C. to become part of a new violent crime task force being put together by new Attorney General Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson)—the former Senator whose daughter Catherine was the one Clarice saved from Buffalo Bill. Faster than you can say, “Conflict of interest?”, Starling is investigating the murder of two women (and the disappearance of one more), and solving the crimes in the course of about 36 hours. Justice is swift on Clarice.
The pacing is, too. About the best thing you can say this premiere has going for it is that it barrels ahead so quickly, you’re not left with much time to mull over just how trite and predictable it is. From the moment Starling announces the killings look far too clinical and staged to be the work of a serial killer, it’s obvious she’s going to be proven right; unfortunately, the “how do they get from point A to the already-known point B” is the bread and butter of the show (or at least this episode), and it’s not terribly compelling stuff. The fact that Starling and her new partner in semi-trustworthiness, former military sniper Tomas Esquivel (Lucca De Oliveira), eventually get a break in the case by interviewing the missing woman’s autistic son is already hacky, even without the attendant praise it showers on Clarice for knowing the barest of facts about autism. (Seriously, having the dad break down in gratitude because she managed to suggest parenting could be hard for him was a bit like giving someone the Presidential Medal Of Freedom for reading a Medium post about volunteerism.) But the show does this a few times—have Starling intuit or understand something fairly straightforward, only for other characters to tell her (and by extension, us) what an amazing insight it is.
But that’s all anyone else is thus far: delivery devices for information about Starling. Even Clarice’s friend Ardelia (Devyn Tyler), who works cold cases and has the most lines of any supporting player, is barely a cipher at this point. Their interactions are little more than chances for the series to tell us more about who Clarice is, rather than showing us. Yes, pilots have a lot of heavy lifting to do, character-wise, and very little time in which to do it, but this still smacks of lazy shorthand. Things kick into gear in the last two acts, when the narrative picks up momentum and we race through the confrontation with the killer and subsequent decision on Clarice’s part to disobey her new boss, Krendler (Walking Dead’s Michael Cudlitz, looking very different without his muttonchops), in order to tell the truth about the man they caught. Will that decision cause friction with her new team? Ten bucks says “only intermittently, as plot dictates.”
The most intriguing part of this first episode was the conversation with Catherine Martin. Here, at last, is something different from a normal procedural, a direct narrative thread that justifies the intellectual property rights for Clarice Starling. Catherine isn’t just traumatized from her kidnapping; she’s unable to leave her house, and it’s immediately clear why Starling has been avoiding her calls—Catherine isn’t well. Sitting among broken mirrors, nursing Bill’s dog, Precious, she insists Clarice is just like her, and then hangs up. If Catherine becomes some sort of frenemy, or even a nemesis, for Clarice, it could make for some potentially rich material. Here’s hoping the series returns to her often.
By episode’s end, though, there’s not much to differentiate this from the average installment of, say, Criminal Minds. This entire hour felt like prologue to what the show will be, though, which isn’t the best start; hopefully now that the throat-clearing is over, Clarice can start doing something more interesting. But hey, at least it wasn’t boring.
- Interesting choice to hire Kal Penn and then give him, what, one line? Maybe two.
- The whole “Have you ever thought maybe he’s trying to make us THINK he’s a serial killer?” thing is awfully played out by now, so using it to try and make Clarice seem extra-smart doesn’t work that well.
- Ardelia keeps a notebook titled “PEOPLE I’M SENDING TO HELL.” Subtlety is not this show’s strong suit.
- “Can you sleep? Or do moths wake you up?” Clarice isn’t being very coy about the fact that it’s using Cathering as a bit of a Lecter stand-in.
- Speaking of which, they’re not legally allowed to say that name on this series, so they talk around it a couple of times instead. I’m sure that won’t get annoying.
- I doubt they’re going to keep up Krendler’s “shut up, you’re just here for PR” attitude for long, which is good, because that’s another pretty tired aspect of this setup.
- Let’s end on a positive note: Rebecca Breeds does a pretty damn good job of approximating Jodie Foster’s take on the character with making it a slavish impersonation.