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CBS’s Clarice Dilutes the Sprawling Strangeness of Its Source | TV/Streaming

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The makeup of that team, with Clarice as its sole female member, is an appropriate nod to what made so much of Harris’s initial characterization of this character so unique. As a young woman who grew up working class in a rural environment—an identity different from so many other FBI agents—she was able to spot things they didn’t. The first three episodes of the series, “The Silence is Over,” “Ghosts of Highway 20,” and “Are You Alright?”, do some of this right. A scene in “The Silence is Over” during which Clarice uses the clues left behind by a female victim’s body to craft a portrait of her is a continuation of what “The Silence of the Lambs” did so well, while her connection to women and children is the focus of “Ghosts of Highway 20,” in which the team travels to a separationist compound to defuse a hostage crisis with a fringe militia group. And Clarice’s friendship with Ardelia is given some particular attention, allowing Ardelia to become more of a standalone character in her own right. A file folder Ardelia carries that bears a scrawled “People I’m sending to Hell” is a little cutesy, but effective in terms of laying out the character’s priorities.

On a grander scale, though, “Clarice” is unnecessarily overcomplicated from the beginning. The series is trying to tell two stories, with one narrative about Clarice’s trauma, her forced meetings with a hostile therapist, and her tendency to mix up her present-day reality with her memories of the shootout with Bill in his basement, and the other about the episodic cases VICAP investigates, like that secessionist leader and possible corruption in the Baltimore Police Department. They don’t quite gel, and the problem is not just overly twisty writing and an uncompelling main mystery, but Clarice’s overall characterization and Breeds’ performance. Perhaps it’s the show’s overreliance on flashbacks and fantasy sequences, but Clarice in the present day feels hollow, like Breeds is going through the motions of deep psychological agony rather than truly communicating them. Her Clarice eats a lot of candy, and works out a lot to heavy metal, and defies direct orders from Krendler. But you don’t get a sense of what drives her each day, or what still horrifies her about the showdown with Bill. 

“Clarice” recreates the nightmarish imagery of a show like “Hannibal,” with a fantasy sequence where Clarice imagines a woman’s hand thrusting out of the thorax of a death’s head moth, numerous glimpses into Buffalo Bill’s work room, with his sewing machine stitching together human flesh, and flashbacks into Catherine’s screams coming from the bottom of a dry well. Yet those images are so divorced of their impact, and so overused, that they irritate in their repetition rather than enlighten. And because Breeds doesn’t bring much lived-in depth to her Clarice, the series’ continual referencing of the events of the film—and Foster’s performance within it—don’t do her any favors.

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