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‘Elsbeth’ takes lead in new show

Quirky character from ‘Good Wife’ gets own series

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
Published: April 13, 2024, 5:12am

With a brief appearance, clocking in at less than three minutes of screen time, Elsbeth Tascioni gave main character energy from the start — even if it was unknown to the actor playing her, or the writers who created her.

Late in the first season of “The Good Wife,” the CBS legal drama that premiered in 2009 and revolved around the spouse (Julianna Margulies) of a disgraced Chicago politician trying to rebuild her life, former Cook County State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (played by Chris Noth) is under house arrest on corruption charges. When he sets off an electronic monitoring alarm by briefly leaving home, his lawyer’s partner, Elsbeth, arrives — seemingly out of nowhere and with the perfectly random observation: “these are beautiful bookcases” — to fend off the police. With her clever questioning, foolishly dismissed as naivete, and bizarrely specific knowledge of equipment installation requirements that had not been followed, she saves Peter from being taken into custody — and leaves a lasting impression.

In the time since, on 14 episodes of “The Good Wife” and five episodes of it’s 2017 spinoff “The Good Fight” — starring Christine Baranski — the quirky supporting player made memorable by actor Carrie Preston has been a scene-stealer; her cheerful pleasantries and stream-of-consciousness ramblings, always (eventually) punctuated with a keen observation or argument, never fail to take a case in unexpected directions.

“We thought it would be funny to have a lawyer that surprises everybody in that way by knowing more than they think, even though she’s kind of dopey and a little bit frazzle-brained,” said Robert King, who co-created “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” with his writing partner and wife, Michelle King. “She catches you off guard, then whams you in the stomach. And with Carrie, Elsbeth became this kite going wildly in the wind and you just have to hold onto the tail so you don’t get thrown off.”

Now, that kite is flying high as the quirky lead.

“Elsbeth” transports the offbeat and perceptive defense attorney out of Chicago and sets her loose in New York, where she’s taken on the role as an impartial observer at the NYPD, tailgating its murder investigations. At least, that’s what they think. The premiere episode, which aired in late February, ended with a twist: She’s actually there to gather evidence on the police captain, played by Wendell Pierce, for a police-corruption investigation. The series returned Thursday, with back-to-back episodes, after a weekslong hiatus prompted by the State of the Union address and March Madness.

“Robert and Michelle often say it’s like a black, white and gray police procedural with the colorful Elsbeth plopped down in the middle of that,” Preston says.

“It was a structure that hadn’t been done for a while, except since then there’s been ‘Poker Face,’” Michelle said. “It just felt like the right time for it. We’ve certainly done our share of spiky, topical television. And I still love it. But we wanted something more comfortable, something more appealing to everyone, rather than trying to make a lot of political points.”

Their simmering interest in the comedic style of the murder mystery procedural takes narrative form in “Elsbeth.” By transporting Elsbeth into a different city to take on a new role, they’ve put her in a different genre, to allow her astute observations to transform her into a classic detective.

In other words: Don’t call “Elsbeth” a spinoff, its creators say.

“For me, a spinoff means a continuation of the world in some way,” says Robert King. “I did think of ‘The Good Fight’ as being a spinoff of ‘The Good Wife.’ This feels like a really different show. It’s a different genre, a different tone.”