‘Clarice’ goes beyond ‘Silence of the Lambs’ in search of new nightmares

Since audiences were first terrified by the 1991 Oscar-winner “The Silence of the Lambs,” so many stories since have revolved around that terrifying cannibal Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

He’s been the focus of novels and even a critically acclaimed NBC prequel series that ran for three seasons

What of Clarice Starling?

What of the dogged FBI trainee who risked so much of herself to track a deadly serial killer?

CBS’ new psychological thriller “Clarice” (premiering Thursday at 10 p.m.) is a welcome and rewarding attempt to expand the dark universe created by novelist Thomas Harris. The series picks up a year after the events of the film.

Clarice (Rebecca Breeds, “Pretty Little Liars”) is still haunted by her experience with Buffalo Bill.

“To be a survivor, you have to be a victim. I was just doing my job,” she tells her FBI-mandated therapist.

He’s not convinced. Is she?

The mutilated bodies of two women are found in Washington. The victims were stabbed and bitten.

Is this the work of a serial killer?

Ruth Martin (Jayne Atkinson, “24”) – the senator whose daughter Clarice saved from Bill – is now attorney general and flexes her muscles to get Clarice reassigned to the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program – right under her old adversary, Paul Krendler (Michael Cudlitz, “The Walking Dead,” and the absolutely great “Southland”).

Clarice balks, but Martin doesn’t give her a choice: Clarice has a reputation for hunting monsters, and it’s time she own it.

Krendler is not happy to have her on his team. He thinks she got lucky when she captured Bill. He’s ready to ship her out if she blinks the wrong way.

Rebecca Breeds, "Clarice" (Photo: CBS).
Clarice (Rebecca Breeds) is not welcomed by her new FBI team. (Photo: CBS).

Clarice’s investigation of the murders suggests there’s something far more complicated going on, and it steers her into the path of a remorseless killer.

But “Clarice” isn’t “Criminal Minds” or like any other crime procedural.

This is about the journey of one intelligent, dedicated, albeit damaged hero as she faces traumas that stretch decades.

While the pilot is solid, the cast pitch-perfect, this first chapter in what looks to be an overarching mystery doesn’t seem all that promising.

Give it a chance.

Next week, “Clarice” takes the team to Tennessee, to confront a cult leader and prevent another Waco. Clarice’s psychological warfare proves to be far more devastating than a bullet (tho’ bullets do have their place when dealing with criminal nutjobs).

The third episode, scheduled for Feb. 25, spins the next chapter in this mystery and features some slick plot twists that indicate this franchise is in great hands.

Breeds is extraordinary in the title role, capturing Clarice’s distinctive Appalachian accent, her stillness – which others mistake for timidity – and her determination to help crime victims.

Most crime victims.

One woman she’s trying not to deal with is Catherine Martin (Marnee Carpenter), the woman she rescued from the well in Buffalo Bill’s home.

Catherine refuses to leave her room and exercises obsessively.

When she finally reaches Clarice on the phone, she demands, “How are you out there in the world?”

“We’re different people,” Clarice replies.

“No. We’re exactly the same. You think you can rewrite history, but you can’t.”

That’s the heart of “Clarice”: Does that which does not kill us define us?