Editorial: We Need To Talk About Clarice

The third season finale of Hannibal aired on August 29, 2015. For the small legion of us that watched it in real time, it was a bittersweet day. In true Bryan Fuller fashion, though, those last few moments were some of the best that television has ever had to offer. I do not think that I am simply being an overly generous Fannibal when I say that watching Hannibal and Will embrace on the edge of the cliff after defeating The Great Red Dragon and wondering what Will’s choice was going to be was just as nail biting and emotional as watching Walter White in the Ozymandias episode of Breaking Bad. Hannibal Lecter and Walter White are both highly intelligent men who are, simply put, assholes. They are the kind of tragically flawed men that we love to put on a pedestal so we can be the ones to knock them down.

When Netflix started streaming Hannibal in July of 2020, Fannibals rejoiced because we could watch it all over again, but something else happened. Hannibal found a brand new audience and now the fandom is even greater and louder. The Reddit Hannibal community started out small, but is now edging towards fifty thousand members. There is currently a rewatch of the series and more Hannigram fan fiction and art than you can shake an expertly roasted human leg at.

A little over five years after Hannigram broke our hearts and left us wondering what became of our favorite Murder Husbands, CBS premiered Clarice. Clarice is a show that has been threatening to premiere for quite some time now and when it was finally coming to fruition, the Fannibal universe began having false hope that this must mean that a fourth season of Hannibal is possible.  I say false hope because there is a very tricky and very real issue at play within the universe that Thomas Harris created.

Thomas Harris introduced us to Hannibal Lecter in his stellar 1981 novel Red Dragon, but it’s not until his second novel that we really get to know Doctor Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is not only a fantastic book, but was also turned into an Academy Award winning film that made Anthony Hopkins a household name. People who have never seen the film, still know what happened to that poor census taker. You may not be personally acquainted with a fava bean, but you sure as hell know that Dr. Lecter ate a human liver with some and a nice Chianti. Director Jonathan Demme did the practically unthinkable: he made horror Oscar worthy. Hopkins made a cannibal quote worthy, Jodie Foster wore her cheap shoes and good bag like any proud rube should and Ted Levine lip synced for his life before Mama Ru ever really knew how truly deadly that phrase could be. How could any of this be topped?

Ten years after the publication of The Silence of the Lambs, Harris released Hannibal onto the world and it was, well, a bit of a disappointment. While Red Dragon was an outstanding amuse bouche and TSOTL was the best first course you couldn’t have even dreamed of, Hannibal was a soggy, yet somehow burned, piece of shit pizza. Like any pizza, it’s fine because bad pizza is still pizza, but we waited ten years for this? Even Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman couldn’t elevate that crap. Hannibal is the Ewok of the Lecter universe, which makes Hannibal Rising the Jar Jar Binks. You wanted dessert after that crappy piece of pizza? Well, here’s a decade’s old piece of butterscotch some weird old lady gave me. You’re welcome.

Four books, five films (don’t forget that Red Dragon 2002 is a remake of 1986’s criminally under seen Manhunter) and then some guy named Bryan Fuller thinks he’s going to make it into a television series? With a Danish guy who has a heavy accent? As someone who already felt fully immersed in the Lecter universe, for better or worse, I was less than optimistic about this new development, but the older I get, the happier I am to be wrong. And I was oh so very wrong about Hannibal. Bryan Fuller took three books, two of which kind of suck, and made one of the most visually stunning and well written shows that has been on television. Notice I said three books. Here’s the thing: the film and TV rights to Red Dragon, Hannibal, Hannibal Rising and the character of Hannibal Lecter are all owned by the Dino De Laurentiis company, but MGM owns The Silence of the Lambs. That’s why you never met Clarice Starling in the Hannibal series, but instead met Miriam Lass in a slight nod to her. Of course, the real Clarice is Will Graham. If you thought Hopkin’s Hannibal had a crush on Jodie Foster’s Starling, Mikkelsen’s Hannibal has a straight up singularly focused obsession on Hugh Dancy’s Graham. Really, who can blame him? While studying at Oxford, Dancy was named both prettiest boy and prettiest girl because he’s that good looking. Three seasons, lots of artistically staged murders, mouth watering cannibalistic feasts, over the top homoeroticism, bespoke suits and a pack of adopted dogs later, we were left with one of the most amazing and heartbreaking series finales. Show runner Fuller admits that they kind of assumed they would get a fourth season and that is why Fannibals are impatiently awaiting for that day to come only to be slapped in the face with CBS releasing Clarice.

CBS. The network that your grandparents watch. The network that subjected humanity to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. CBS, who’s bread and butter is crime procedurals like NCIS and the now deceased CSI and Criminal Minds. Sure, CSI was awesome in it’s heyday and Criminal Minds certainly has it’s merits. Anything with Josh Stewart in it, even in a guest role capacity, is fine by me, but none of these shows are going to change the landscape of television and make you rethink what you should be demanding out of your entertainment. Hannibal did that. Hannibal got away with things on network television that are, to this day, kind of shocking. People who do not enjoy horror or anything remotely bloody, love Hannibal and that is a testament to how phenomenal the show is. So how could anyone even try to touch that with Clarice?

To be fair, I obviously went into the pilot episode of Clarice with prejudice. But you know what? I did the same thing to Hannibal. Clarice is not a bad show and definitely has the potential to be it’s own, interesting entity with it’s own stories to tell. After completing the second episode, there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty: Rebecca Breeds has nailed all of the nuances of Clarice Starling’s voice, accent and insecure physical demeanor.

Picking up one year after Starling saved Catherine Martin from Buffalo Bill, Clarice is forced by DA Ruth Martin to work with Agent Paul Krendler and his team of men who don’t want anything to do with her. Ruth Martin believes that because Clarice saved her daughter from Buffalo Bill, she has a unique insight into the mind of the truly deranged, and also, it looks good for her political career. Ruth Martin is a woman with a professional agenda and she has no qualms with using Agent Starling as a show pony. Starling’s psychiatrist does not think that she is ready to be back in the field and he explains all of this to us from an office and seating arrangement that is definitely trying to subliminally, albeit it not too subtly, remind us of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham. The lowest of the low, though, is the tediousness of the plot line that revolves around Krendler and his team of men who do not want to work with Clarice. Wait. One guy is OK with it because he’s former military and has an open mind and I’m not entirely sure what one has to do with the other, but let’s just go with it.

Episode one relies heavily on imagery from TSOTL film. The opening credits of the show even blend a Deaths-head moth with the face of Clarice Starling. It feels so heavy handed and it’s such obvious pandering that it’s hard to forgive, but it is also the only source material they have the rights to. Can’t really blame them. I can, however, blame them for wasting so much great acting talent on such a generic story. Ultimately, Clarice is another crime procedural that has a new story each week with a larger backstory continually working. That in itself is not a bad thing. Hannibal and The X-Files both did the same thing and they did it well. This is a formula that can work, but it is also a formula that can be easily relied upon to keep shoveling the same  shit to viewers.

I want to love Clarice because I love the character of Clarice Starling. I want to champion her and her ability to navigate herself through a man’s world, but this is 2021 and I am so tired of watching this story. I don’t care that show is set in the 90’s. Yes, Hannibal also played a little fast and loose with the timeline created by Harris, but I’m living in the now and I am a woman who is fucking sick and tired of living in a man’s world and I sure as shit don’t need to be subjected to it in my entertainment and that is where the difference between Hannibal and Clarice lays.

Bryan Fuller is a feminist to the nth degree. Hannibal is a fiercely feminist show and that is one of the reasons it is so beloved. All of the female characters on Hannibal are equals to the male characters. This is never a question or debate or anything to be spoken of. It’s a non issue because that’s how it should be. Watching Clarice is like taking a time machine back to the 90’s in all of the worst ways. We might as well put on ultra low rise jeans, platform sandals and resurrect a tamagotchi because the world that Clarice is living in thinks it’s outrageous for a woman to break ranks and speak her own mind. That’s not an outrageous thing to do: if a male character did the same thing, it would be courageous. Like, say, if someone named Will Graham did that, it would be seen as uniquely charismatic and intelligent.

Watching Clarice Starling play a 90’s female version of Will Graham is infuriating, taxing and, quite frankly, an insult to all female horror and television fans. We are smarter than this and so is Clarice Starling. Clarice needs to come into the modern day, timelines be dammed, because you absolutely cannot expect the forward thinking audience of 2021 to simply accept that a woman like Clarice Starling would still tolerate a machismo working environment. She wouldn’t because she never did. She may be a well scrubbed rube, but she is exactly the kind of female character that would dominate in a Bryan Fuller universe and that’s the most underwhelming thing about Clarice. The only way it has managed to truly differentiate itself from Hannibal is by allowing itself to stay in the past in all of the very worst ways.

Lisa Fremont

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