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CBS’s “Clarice” is a failure — but at least its an interesting one

When I proposed a review of CBS’s “Silence of the Lambs”(1991) sequel series “Clarice” (2021) at the Campanil’s weekly pitch meeting, I assumed that I’d just be writing a couple thousand words about how the show turned out to be a trash fire, as expected, and didn’t rectify any of the transphobic messages of the film upon which it is based, as expected. Having watched the first three episodes of “Clarice,” I can report that while both of those things are technically true, the show somehow manages to fail in even more new and interesting ways.

Problematic content aside, “Clarice” dramatically fails the legacy of its main character Agent Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds), a legacy which I would argue is already rather dim. Nobody watches “Silence of the Lambs” because they want to see the story of a rural, down-to-earth, closeted lesbian cop as she is thrust into extraordinary circumstances to climb her way up the corporate ladder at the FBI; they want to see it because it’s salacious. They don’t want to see Jodie Foster enter Buffalo Bill’s den as a scared West Virginian runaway trying to prove herself to the FBI boys’ club; they want to see Buffalo Bill in all his perverse glory, dancing naked, draped in the skin of dead women. They want to see Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) “put the lotion on its skin” and they want to see Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) taunt Starling (Jodie Foster) with threats to eat her “liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

“Clarice” positions itself as an exploration of the aftermath of the events of “Silence of the Lambs,” both in Starling’s mind and in her workplace, but it repeatedly fails its own premise. In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice Starling has a clear character arc: she begins the film shy and overlooked, desperate to prove herself, and she ends it confident after defeating Buffalo Bill. “Clarice” puts Starling right back at square one. Even though it repeatedly references the events of the original film to make the point that it takes places afterwards, it clumsily walks back Starling’s character development, making it so that even amidst her severe PTSD and newfound celebrity, she is once again a shy, overlooked paper-pusher at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. 

Though it’s not the film’s draw for most, Starling’s character does have appeal. That appeal is rooted in her plainness, her all-American roots and her goal of saving people just like her “policeman daddy.” At the core of her character, Clarice Starling is an ordinary person who undergoes a change because of extraordinary circumstances. Besides giving her a desk job again, “Clarice” undoes this characterization by heavily employing the trope of “The Chosen One.” The Chosen One is a type of character (as helpfully described by TV Tropes) who has “been chosen by some force and they are now the only ones capable of resolving the plot.” Over and over, viewers are reminded that Starling is special, and the way she’s overlooked only underscores how eagle-eyed and intelligent she really is, acting with the insight and intuition no other agent has and being despised for it. However, this characterization can never really find its footing, as the show is also constantly reminding viewers of Starling’s past heroism, a fact that contradicts the trope the show relies so heavily on. It doesn’t work as part of a narrative structure for a special person, plucked from obscurity and chosen to save the world, to have past heroic deeds. It wouldn’t make them specially chosen, it would make them … expected. 

In the same way, the show’s logic crumbles when it treats Starling like a fresh-out-of-the-academy agent with a lot of grit and a special little “something” while also constantly trying to acknowledge the battle with Buffalo Bill that granted Agent Starling and Jodie Foster great acclaim at their respective academies.

The show’s overall logic is so confusing that my other criticisms of it feel less important, but I want to make sure I address “Clarice”‘s other biggest failure: its straightwashing. When I heard that CBS was making this show, I was skeptical, but I thought maybe in the year 2021, we might move from queer coding Agent Starling to portraying her as a fully uncensored lesbian. But alas, her “best friend” and “roommate” and character to whom she is closest in the original film, Ardelia Mapp, remains such in the series, nothing more than a big fat “should’ve been.”

And maybe it’s the critic in me, but that’s how I felt the whole time I was watching the show — like every moment, every shot, every decision should have been something better, something different. It’s painful how much this series looks and feels like a prequel even as it continues to insist it’s a sequel. So if you’re looking for my final assessment, here it is: “Clarice” isn’t really even a mixed bag, it’s just a bag full of missed opportunities.