Offering a "Silence of the Lambs" spinoff that doesn't include Hannibal Lecter sounds as doomed as a Dracula tale without the Count himself.
But the producers behind "Clarice," premiering at 9 p.m. Thursday on CBS, intend to do just that. Not that they have a choice.
Due to divided licensing rights over the characters in Thomas Harris' novels, CBS can't even mention the Chianti-sipping cannibal. Instead, the drama will focus squarely on FBI Agent Clarice Starling, still reeling a year after consulting with, um, you know who.
The legal restrictions may end up as an advantage.
Lecter has already chewed up the scenery in an NBC drama and four feature films, including the 1991 masterpiece that cemented Anthony Hopkins' status as a movie star. But Starling has been missing in action since Julianne Moore played her in 2001's "Hannibal," even though the American Film Institute hailed the character as the greatest heroine in film history.
"Hannibal has been brought to life by extraordinarily talented artists, but Clarice has not been explored like that," said "Clarice" co-creator Jenny Lumet. "She has a depth and a mystery that we haven't examined yet. It's been a very male gaze. We haven't looked through her lenses. What's it like to be female and live in this world? What's it like to be sort of suddenly famous for saving a life and for defeating a monster?"
The series opens with Starling stonewalling a psychiatrist, even though visions of Buffalo Bill skinning his victims still haunt her. She prefers shuffling papers to hunting serial killers, refusing to answer messages from Catherine Martin, the woman she saved in the final moments of "Lambs."
But when she's called back into field duty, she's forced to deal with her demons, as well as Martin and her FBI nemesis, Paul Krendler.
You won't have to study murderers for a living to relate.
"I think that one of the things the MeToo movement showed us is you're actually hard-pressed to find a woman who doesn't have PTSD of some sort," said showrunner Elizabeth Klaviter. "We're asked to deal with that as young women as we're entering the workforce and as we're starting to come away from our families and learn how to be adults in our own rights. One of the things I really love about Clarice is she's succeeding in her workplace, but she's also having to sort out her mental health while she's doing that."
Rebecca Breeds, who plays Starling, didn't shy away from studying Jodie Foster's Oscar-winning performance in "Lambs," even borrowing the West Virginia accent Foster used.
"I wanted badly to echo the voice," said the Australian-born actor. "It's that comfort, that familiarity that will link the two worlds together in a really beautiful way. I think it really helps me switch into the character. It is a very dark world, and it is nice to have something to step into and then be able to step out of it and take a breath for a minute."
Breeds may be 5 feet 3, but she towers over the action, which includes trying to defuse a Waco-like standoff, with a steely performance that deserves serious award consideration. And the underlying question that elevated the 1991 film above standard horror persists: What's the personal cost of dealing with pure evil?
"I think the Thomas Harris world is so lasting and popular, and we are so thrilled to be a part of it," Lumet said. "It's kind of like you get to add your instrument to the symphony."
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 •
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin