Even now, thirty years later, there’s a thrilling chill that seeps into the bones when watching Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. The eerie unpredictability of the killer, the perfectly calibrated relationship between Jodie Foster’s young FBI cadet and Anthony Hopkins’ urbane monster, the highbrow execution of decidedly lowbrow material—it all works in tandem to create an unforgettable portrait of one of pop culture’s most indelible villains and the woman who beat the odds and successfully got to him. What a shame, then, to see the second episode of CBS’ Clarice toss all that rich source material out the window, with a story that could’ve easily replaced the names of its characters and thereby become indistinguishable from a dozen other CBS crime shows. Clarice seems to be signaling it has even less interest than the pilot in trying to maintain some fidelity to what makes these people interesting, or telling stories connected to that history. One can almost hear the studio executives explaining the situation to the creative team: It puts the CBS procedural framework on its skin or else it gets the hose again.
“Clarice Gets Lectured, And It Makes No Difference” would have made an accurate subtitle for this second installment of the show. Four separate dressings down regarding her decision to disobey orders at the end of the pilot (remember when she told the truth to the press about the killer?), from four different people (ranging from close friend Ardelia to I-don’t-like-you boss Krendler), and none of them appear to make the slightest dent in Clarice or her behavior. When her team is called out to investigate the shooting of an ATF agent from someone inside a Waco-like compound—complete with a Koresh substitute played by Tim Guinee—it’s not long before Clarice again shrugs off the chain of command and goes rogue, this time to get sufficient evidence to justify arrests. The difference this time is, it works, and everyone goes along with it, despite having literally no new reason to trust her more than they did two hours earlier. By the end of the episode, even Krendler is doing the begrudging-respect thing, going so far as to withdraw his request to have her transferred. That was quick.
There are ways this could’ve been more compelling. Part of what made Starling an interesting character is that she’s a fairly ordinary person who just happened to find herself in extraordinary circumstances. Now, not only is she suffering from pretty severe PTSD (as well she should be), but the show is trying to turn her into some one-of-a-kind FBI whiz, the kind of person everyone else admires for being so head and shoulders above them in terms of intelligence. Not only was this unnecessary, there’s very little evidence thus far to suggest she’s earned this level of awe. Clarice keeps having other characters tell us how brilliant its title character is, for reasons that are far from evident. When she does some seriously base-level Psychology 101 to get cult leader Novak to incriminate himself, he looks at her with respect and says, “That’s smart.” Was it? She just yelled “You’re under arrest!” while inside a cult compound with no readily available support, surrounded by men with guns. Seems more forehead-slappingly stupid from this vantage point.
Similarly, the show seems to be doubling down on her flashbacks, maybe because that’s literally the only element of the story that has even a tenuous connection with anything outside of this episode’s case of the week. But in practice, what that means is that Clarice goes into deer-in-headlights mode any time someone so much as mentions the name of Buffalo Bill, as Novak does almost immediately after meeting her. (Does this really happen every time anyone mentions a name from her past? If so, it’s yet more evidence she should be in serious therapy, not in the field.) It makes for clunky, drawn-out storytelling during moments that should be tense. Clarice entering the compound should be compelling; instead, we get slow-motion shots of green beans being washed. It may be suggesting connections with a mysterious, pain-ridden childhood, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t silly.
At least we spend a few more minutes with Clarice’s team members, even if it is in the context of the aforementioned dressings-down of her behavior last episode. These conversations don’t really land, though, because we’ve barely met these people. It doesn’t help that each one starts by defensively mentioning their stock character type, before explaining to Clarice why they might know a thing or two. Agent Murray Clarke gives the “I’m just the token old guy who does grunt work, but...” spiel; Tomas does his third or fourth variation on the “I may only be a sniper with average intelligence, but...” bit, this series’ equivalent of “I may only be an unfrozen caveman lawyer...”; and so on, all versions of the same “we’re a team” message. Yet poor, ignored Kal Penn doesn’t even get one of these monologues. Are we sure he’s really on the team?
The case of the week ends up being a lesson in moderating expectations for Clarice. After finding the video evidence that Novak and the sheriff are in cahoots, trafficking in the prostitution and abuse of women (what a fun, casually tossed-off subplot of violent misogyny that doesn’t feel exploitive at all), Clarice gets upset when she learns AG Atkinson cut a deal with the sheriff to collar a bunch of the men involved. It’s a chance to give our hero some practical, real-world lessons in the art of crime-fighting—not to mention the realities of how politics and crime forever overlap—but it also serves to cement the idea Clarice is going to be Atkinson’s point person on the team, no matter how friendly she seems to be with Krendler. Actual character dynamics are welcome, given how infrequent they appeared in the rest of the episode.
Seriously, this was the kind of second episode that requires you to know nothing of the people involved or the larger story being told. In other words, it’s a purely procedural installment, a tarted-up Criminal Minds. Is this how it’s going to be? Even The X-Files usually gave us some small flickers of connective tissue during monster-of-the-week outings. If this is all the ambition the show holds, there’s nothing wrong with that, per se; but if that’s the case, why bother with licensing the intellectual property that wants to be something more?
- I really was startled by just how little narrative throughline this episode cared to insert from its overarching plot. Hell, it even ended with a mournful pop tune a la House. Guess someone’s gunning for syndication.
- Bright spot: I did like that it turned out to be the kid who shot the ATF agent, solely as a way to get someone in authority to come help him escape.
- We’re already getting flashbacks to what Clarice’s therapist told her...one episode ago. This show really doesn’t credit its audience with an abundance of brains.
- Wager of the week: Ten bucks says we’re going to be getting an awful lot of cases where a suspect/villain says they’ll only talk to Starling. It’s a convenient shorthand to keep her in the center of everything the team does.
- “Follow orders, or you’ll get someone killed today.” Starling didn’t follow orders, and technically, she got someone (Novak) killed. But hey, it worked out okay, so ignore Krendler!