Mirror on the (Recent) Past: CBS’s Clarice

by Bryan & Heather

There comes a time in every person’s life when they’ve lived long enough for history to have caught up with the time they’ve been alive. So it was with us this week when, after finishing CBS’s 1993-set crime drama Clarice, we realized that not only are we almost 30, but that the 90s are feasible material for a history blog. While we had not originally meant to watch the Silence of the Lambs spinoff with an historian’s eye, once we thought back over it through that lens, we discovered a number of fascinating case studies and questions concerning how we portray recent history.

Clarice tells the continuing story of Clarice Starling (Rebecca Breeds), now a full FBI agent, following her involvement in catching the serial killer Buffalo Bill during the events of the classic film The Silence of the Lambs. While Thomas Harris’s original novels themselves continued Clarice’s story, the show takes a bit of a detour from that canon, not least due to not having the rights to anuly characters that didn’t originate in Lambs (sorry, fans of a certain cannibal). Clarice and her fellow VICAP taskforce agents find themselves on the trail of a new serial killer, but not all is as it seems in a story that calls out the monsters who populate the heights of America’s corporate hierarchy.

As with it’s source movie, Clarice steers hard into themes of gender and discrimination so present in its decade (and in large part still so 30 years later). Clarice finds herself the object of desire for numerous men in power, and while it does not affect her professional life in this iteration, it ultimately endangers her very safety.

Devyn Tyler as FBI Agent Ardelia Mapp

The show goes even farther, however, and introduces two new threads to its 90s milieu. The first involves Clarice’s black roommate and fellow FBI agent Ardelia Mapp (Devyn A. Tyler). Mapp is a dedicated agent pioneering the new field of DNA analysis who, despite her invaluable assistance cracking a high profile case, finds herself held back from promotion as clueless white men get elevated over her. Though resistant at first, she ultimately falls in with an organization of black agents seeking to challenge the FBI’s institutional racism, and even files an equal opportunity lawsuit that names Clarice in the complaint, citing that Clarice is shielded and even lauded for reckless behavior.

The second thread involves one of VICAP’s informants, a corporate accountant named Julia Lawson (Jen Richards). Silence of the Lambs’ villain, Buffalo Bill, is infamous in part for his transgender coding, and indeed the film led to a rise in trans stereotypes and vilification, even though the novel and movie both state that Bill is not truly transgender. Julia Lawson, however, is, and not only gets to reproach Clarice for her unthinking aspersion of trans people but turns into an invaluable member of the team by the finale.

Jenn Richards, herself trans, as trans accountant Julia Lawson.

It was this last development, as a room full of law enforcement agents, all but one of them male, applauded a trans woman that we both questioned some of the historical veracity of Clarice’s portrayal of the last decade of the twentieth century. Breaking the principle of historical relativism is most obvious in media portraying stories hundreds or thousands of years ago, but it is just as present in stories decades ago. Was this an effort to atone for some of the negative effects of the prior film, while also playing to more modern audiences? Or was this actually restoring accuracy to a portrayal of the time period, putting marginalized people, and their struggles, back into the picture? A bit of the former in the case of Julia’s reception, we suspect, but certainly the latter in including her presence, as well as giving credit to Ardelia and her fellow black agents’ trials.

While we have mixed feelings about Clarice as a show, it has certainly proven a fascinating exercise in how we perceive and portray the recent past. It certainly is not for everyone, but if you find yourself nostalgic for a period piece set within living memory, you could do worse.

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