‘Elsbeth’ Review: Carrie Preston’s ‘Good Wife’ Character Gets an Appealingly Broad CBS Spinoff

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Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife and The Good Fight spinoff Elsbeth is TV’s latest series about an eccentric non-police investigator using their eccentricities to solve murders, as well as the latest to use a throwback template — we tend to cite Columbo, though Columbo is hardly the only apt reference — to (slightly) freshen up the procedural format.

This is a dual trend I’ve written about and analyzed to death — so to speak — so let’s try something else.

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Elsbeth, which transplants Carrie Preston’s delightfully odd and unfailingly effective Elsbeth Tascioni to the Big Apple, represents the Kings in comfort-food mode.

Coming after six seasons of Paramount+’s The Good Fight, one of the angriest and funniest shows of the Trump Era, and CBS and Paramount+’s Evil (currently wrapping its fourth season), in which humor and horror elements capture the perpetual discomfort of modern urban life, Elsbeth is immediately striking for how at ease it is. It’s more culturally topical than politically topical and while it’s a show driven by weekly murders, it handles that carnage with a distinctly light touch. As a result of that levity and the sense that Elsbeth would rather be a warm blanket than a burr in the saddle, it’s doubtful this series will generate the same passionate critical affection as the Kings’ earlier shows. But it’s designed to attract a wider audience as a fizzy, accessible comic thriller built around a charmingly quirky lead performance.

You don’t necessarily need to have watched The Good Wife, which introduced Elsbeth, to jump into this series, though it helps to understand how she works. Elsbeth is deceptively scatterbrained, consistently cheerful and earnestly inquisitive in a combination that makes her easy to underestimate, at least until the first time the method to her madness reveals itself.

Elsbeth is also a Chicago-based attorney, so you’d think it would require a lot of work for her to become what is effectively a private investigator in New York. The simple explanation is that, as a result of a consent decree tied to a wrongful arrest lawsuit (don’t worry if you don’t exactly understand), Elsbeth has been sent by the DOJ to serve as an outside observer monitoring the NYPD. All accommodations must be made for Elsbeth’s presence, much to the chagrin of Wendell Pierce’s Captain Wagner. There’s an ongoing plot tied to Elsbeth’s real observational motives, a mythology that’s present, but soft-pedaled.

Eager to be in New York and take advantage of its various tourist-friendly amenities — trendy bakeries, hip-hop bus tours and cheesy musicals — Elsbeth may be fleeing something in her Chicago past. Or maybe not, because that would imply darkness that has no place in Elsbeth. Still, the character can’t resist following loose ends in the high-profile cases she’s just supposed to be observing, and she starts doing her own detective work, often under the watch of Kaya Blanke (Carra Patterson), the officer assigned to monitor her. But sometimes not. I’m not smart enough to be sure if this is a jurisdictional mess or not.

Like Columbo — or Poker Face, if you’re plagued by recency bias — Elsbeth is a howdunit or a whydunit instead of a whodunit. Each episode begins with the murder and then pits the NYPD and a skeptical Elsbeth against the generally wily perpetrator.

It’s a guest star buffet. In the first episode, Stephen Moyer plays an acting instructor and director who offs a student he was having an affair with. The second is built around a popular Bravo-esque staged reality show overseen by Jesse Tyler Ferguson as an emotionally insecure producer. They’re very similar, entertainment industry-based mysteries, and the dynamics between Elsbeth and the two ostensible killers play out with a similar cat-and-mouse energy. I’d have probably made some effort to split the episodes up to avoid the impression of sameness.

The third episode, a take-off on Only Murders in the Building featuring Linda Lavin as a much-maligned co-op board president and Jane Krakowski as a realtor hoping to get a listing in her upscale complex, is different and amusing enough to suggest the series’ potential versatility.

The series hangs primarily on Preston’s capable shoulders, and she delivers the kind of calculating exuberance that helped her win a guest acting Emmy for this role back in the Good Wife days. The character is a test of patience for everybody around her, but Preston is pretty great at managing a wild-eyed joy that perhaps hints at something diagnosable, without ever over-explaining the condition or circumstances that could shape somebody into an Elsbeth Tascioni (saving that, presumably, for CBS’ hypothetical Young Elsbeth down the road). The performance is broad, but thoroughly broad-by-design — and, like the show’s narrative engine, deceptively versatile.

Pierce is frustratingly underused, but his slow-burn discouraging response to Elsbeth matches well with Patterson’s slow-burn encouragement. They’re the only two additional regular characters who come to slowly realize that Elsbeth is brilliant at the thing she does, even if nobody is quite sure what that thing is.

While waiting for an ensemble to emerge, you watch for the oddball parrying between Preston and the guest stars mostly playing characters who think it might be fun to toy with Elsbeth or play along with her until well past the point at which they should have recognized how formidable she is. You’d think that eventually, one of these cornered killers might do something dangerous directed at our protagonist, but this isn’t a show that’s eager to raise the stakes. I’m assuming we’ll eventually see how Elsbeth would respond to a situation of real jeopardy. I’ll be curious to see how it plays, because at least through the three episodes sent to critics, offering the opportunity to tune in and watch for 43 minutes without any worries is the show’s defining characteristic.

There’s a long TV history of spinoffs that go heavier or lighter than their origin series. When Lou Grant got his own show, his eponymous series was much more serious than The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Better Call Saul was, in its nascent stages, supposed to follow Saul Goodman’s voice to a generally funnier place than Breaking Bad, not that it followed that playbook.

Elsbeth feels like a match for its central character, if not for its origin material. It has barely a whiff of politics and, driven by Elsbeth’s perspective, pilot director Robert King goes for a brighter and more wide-eyed visual approach to its location. Most of the references to the original are minor, though one key character from The Good Wife has already been name-dropped enough times that if he doesn’t eventually appear, it would be criminal.

The Good Wife was always a show that was too serialized and broody for broadcast — its 150+ episode run is a miracle the likes of which we may never see again — hence the hop to streaming for its first spinoff. Evil felt like it was structured well for broadcast, but might have been too twisted for CBS’ target demo, hence its jump to streaming. In this starting point, Elsbeth is perfect for broadcast. Will it deepen and darken? Not every show needs to! If those earlier shows reflected our gloomy current moment, Elsbeth may be intended more as a cheery antidote.

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