The Good Wife Spinoff Elsbeth Is Too Much of a Good Thing

“These are beautiful bookcases.” 

That’s the first line ever uttered by Elsbeth Tascioni on The Good Wife, as she wanders into a crime scene taking pictures with her phone, like an out-of-towner who’d stepped off one of Chicago’s Architectural Tour boats and just kept on drifting away from the group. It’s the prototypical entrance for Elsbeth, who’s often gone fishing in her own stream of consciousness, right up to the point where she snaps back to reality and delivers some staggering piece of insight. We’ll know her as a brilliant trial attorney, but here she’s acting as a legal fixer, swooping in to help Alicia Florrock (Julianna Marguiles) keep her husband out of jail for violating the terms of his house arrest on corruption charges. He’s guilty, but Elsbeth turns the tables so deftly that the police almost have to apologize for their mismanagement.

That’s the Elsbeth formula—a smattering of daffy non sequiturs and pleasantries, followed by a shrewd observation or argument that surprises everyone that hasn’t worked with her before. Carrie Preston plays Elsbeth with an indefatigable cheeriness that’s at once winning and vaguely unnerving, and armchair physicians have frequently diagnosed the character as “on the spectrum” for her disconnect with other people. It’s not as if she’s unfriendly, quite the contrary, but Elsbeth’s conversational style is conspicuously alien, like she’s earnestly reaching for a human connection that’s not quite there. That’s part of what makes her so effective in her job: She seems like a harmless eccentric to her adversaries (and her friends, too), but misses absolutely nothing.

For 13 years on CBS’s peerless courtroom drama The Good Wife and its rowdy CBS All-Access/Paramount+ spin-off The Good Fight, Elsbeth was the greatest of guest-spot ringers, recharging the atmosphere of both shows like a sudden swing in barometric pressure. There’s no shortage of brilliant character actors challenging for the crown, either: Consider Michael J. Fox as Louis Canning, a lawyer who uses his involuntary body movements to draw sympathy from juries, or Dylan Baker as Colin Sweeney, a rich and homicidal deviant in the mold of Claus Von Bülow or Robert Durst. No one in television has a casting rolodex as deep as show runners Robert and Michelle King, yet Preston could be counted on to give every episode a lift.

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All of which makes the new CBS spin-off show premiering Feb. 29, Elsbeth, a be-careful-what-you-wish-for proposition. Now this delightful chaos agent who’d appeared on 14 episodes in seven seasons of The Good Wife and five episodes in six seasons of The Good Fight is at the center of every episode of Elsbeth, which is an abundance of Elsbeth Tascioni. When Elsbeth first floated into a room with Alicia Florrick, marveling about bookcases, she brought an offbeat lightness to a dark moment in the Florrick family, when its legal and marital crises had come to a head. And she stood out, too, on The Good Fight, as an oddly stabilizing presence amid that show’s batsh-t carnival of provocation. But shifting a supporting character to the lead, especially one as fundamentally unknowable as Elsbeth, simplifies and flattens the dynamic.

Carra Patterson stars as Officer Kaya and Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni in Elsbeth
Carra Patterson stars as Officer Kaya and Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni in Elsbeth, a new drama based on the character featured in The Good Wife and The Good Fight.Elizabeth Fisher—CBS

To a large degree, the lack of ambition makes it a cozier fit for CBS, which has made low-risk genre shows its bread and butter. Where The Good Wife found ways to reinvent the courtroom drama while ticking the requisite boxes—and The Good Fight, in the wilds of the streaming world, could cut loose completely—Elsbeth quickly settles into a case-of-the-week rhythm that’s satisfying but much more by the numbers. The one semi-ingenious conceptual twist is that Elsbeth is technically a lawyer, but on the show, she’s more of an unofficial homicide detective, slipping into a sleuthing job through the backdoor. Her uncanny powers of observation still apply, but they’re mostly used to clean up sloppy policing. 

In the opening of the pilot, Elsbeth is the only passenger on the upper deck of a “rap tour” bus in the middle of winter, beaming like a Midwestern rube in a novelty Statue of Liberty visor while her guide gently suggests joining the other passengers downstairs. She has the bus pull over at a murder scene and introduces herself: “I’m part of the thingie-thing,” she says. “The consent decree.” This consent decree gives her broad authority to oversee NYPD procedures, but from the moment she steps into her first murder scene, Elsbeth can’t keep herself from snooping around and annoying detectives with theories that are inevitably dead-on. One glance at the bathroom trash and a suicide becomes a homicide; her first instinct on who-dun-it is always correct.

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The three episodes of Elsbeth made available to critics unfold like a typical episode of the Rian Johnson/Natasha Lyonne Peacock series Poker Face, with a dramatization of the murder first before our heroine enters the picture. (Elsbeth does not have the clever flashback structure, however.) If you’re thinking, “Wait, a network Poker Face with Elsbeth Tascioni sounds pretty damn appealing,” that’s true to a point, though there’s so little variance in style and in Elsbeth’s MO that most of the color comes from the one-and-done character actors who get juicy guest roles, like Jane Krakowski as a cutthroat realtor or Jesse Tyler Ferguson as a reality-show producer who, let’s say, makes a killer margarita.

Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni and Wendell Pierce stars as Captain C.W. Wagner in Elsbeth
Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni and Wendell Pierce stars as Captain C.W. Wagner in Elsbeth.Elizabeth Fisher—CBS

Preston remains a funny, mischievous treat as Elsbeth, who’s so used to unsettling people that she tolerates their fits of annoyance and is skilled at self-deprecation. (On her name not quite being Elizabeth, she says, “It’s half the syllables but somehow twice the effort.”) Elsbeth gives her a top-drawer Angry Police Chief type to jostle with, too, in The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, whose character’s alleged shadiness allows the show to chip away at an overarching plot. 

But after watching Preston’s superb minor turn in The Holdovers, as an administrative assistant whose relentless positivity breaks down Paul Giamatti’s sour schoolteacher, it feels like there’s a missing dimension to Elsbeth that the show isn’t interested in finding. There’s a poignancy and warmth to Preston’s character in The Holdovers that goes beyond the spirited optimism and quirkiness that Elsbeth brings to every occasion. She didn’t need those qualities to steal scenes in The Good Wife and The Good Fight. On her own, she’s too much of what you expect. 

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