CBS can officially be called the FBI channel. The network is the home of the TV series FBI, FBI Declassified, FBI Most Wanted, and now their newest FBI show, Clarice, which premiered on February 11. Here’s what the CBS website says about the show: Clarice is a deep dive into the untold personal story of FBI Agent Clarice Starling as she returns to the field in 1993, one year after the events of The Silence of the Lambs. Brilliant and vulnerable, Clarice’s bravery gives her an inner light that draws monsters and madmen to her. However, her complex psychological makeup that comes from a challenging childhood empowers her to begin to find her voice while working in a man’s world, as well as escape the family secrets that have haunted her throughout her life. Watch the trailer here.
While watching the premiere, I made a few notes about what aspects of being an FBI profiler were accurately portrayed and where the show took creative license. If you want to enjoy watching a crime show featuring the FBI, never ever watch with a current, former or retired agent. It will not be a pleasant experience.
In this series, which takes place in 1993, a year after Clarice was pulled out of training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, for a temporary duty assignment with the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), Clarice, still a brand new agent with no experience, is now permanently assigned to the unit. She does data entry at the BSU lab. As the story kicks off, Clarice is notified that she will be serving as a criminal profiler on a newly established Violent Crimes Task Force convened specifically to chase down serial killers. Her qualification for this position is her prior success capturing the notorious serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Being promoted to the BSU (now known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit – BAU) is highly competitive. Eligibility starts with compulsory time working cases in the field. Even then, the number of agents vying for a spot compared to the number of positions available makes being selected like winning the lottery. Agents with advanced degrees, Master’s and even Ph.D. candidates apply and are not automatically accepted. In real life, rookies need not apply. Clarice gets a spot anyway. She’s told that her co-workers hate her. Maybe that’s why.
In that local and state police departments have jurisdiction over most murders, the concept of a task force to work serial murder cases is valid. Strangely, Clarice’s task force doesn’t appear to have any representative from local and state law enforcement agencies. The name of Clarice’s new task force is ViCAP and the members have the acronym, which stands for Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, in big gold letters on the back of their navy blue raid jackets. In 1993, Violent Crime Task Forces were common practice in every one of the FBI’s 56 field offices. However, ViCAP is not a task force but instead the largest repository of serial violent crime cases in the country. The online database allows client law enforcement agencies to submit cases and provides direct access for them to conduct independent analysis to link similar crimes and potentially establish common patterns.
Clarice’s first case on the ViCAP Task Force involves two dead bodies discovered floating in a river. As a profiler in the BSU, she is tasked with identifying and documenting the multiple stab wounds and bite marks on each corpse and providing an on-the-spot profile of the victims. If you’ve been listening to FBI Retired Case File Review, you know that highly trained members of the FBI’s Evidence Response Team (ERT) collect forensic evidence at crime scenes, not criminal profilers. As the episode continues, instead of acting as a consultant to agents and investigators working on the case by reviewing case files, witness interviews, and other evidence gather to date by the case agents and then preparing and presenting them a written profile, Clarice is actively involved in the investigation, and even the arrest of the subject. That’s not how profiling works.
Clarice will become a hit show, despite the misconceptions and inaccurate portrayals of criminal profilers. It’s well acted and the scenes are full of drama and suspense. Plus, serial killers are hot right now.
I only hope that fans of the show listen to this podcast and read books like John Douglas’s iconic Mindhunter and other true crime books to learn what FBI criminal profilers really do. Besides Douglas, I’ve interviewed other former FBI criminal profilers and retired agents about serial murder. You might also want to listen to these FBI Retired Case File Review episodes with former BAU profilers and these FBI Retired Case File Review episodes featuring serial killers.
(Disclaimer: If you are watching Clarice simply to be entertained, don’t read this review. I’m here to educate and provide a reality check for those who want to learn about the real FBI. My reality checks should not be confused with criticism. I understand that creating an accurate portrayal of an FBI investigation is an impossible task if the investigation must be solved within less than an hour. Corners must be cut, and creative license must be used to move matters along quickly. I get it. I really do. However, to counteract the “CSI Effect” this sometimes creates, I’m going to, respectfully, point out a few issues with Clarice.)