‘Elsbeth’ Has So Much Potential — If The Quirkiness Doesn’t Get Too Out Of Control

The new CBS procedural brings Carrie Preston back to our TV screens as America’s favorite lawyer savant.
Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni and Wendell Pierce stars as Captain C.W. Wagner in "Elsbeth," a new drama based on the character featured in "The Good Fight" and "The Good Wife."
Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni and Wendell Pierce stars as Captain C.W. Wagner in "Elsbeth," a new drama based on the character featured in "The Good Fight" and "The Good Wife."
Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

“Would you consider an Elsbeth spinoff?” HuffPost first asked Carrie Preston in a 2013 interview. At the time, Preston’s recurring role as Elsbeth Tascioni on “The Good Wife” was a fan favorite, and it earned her that year’s Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Her response to the question was, “Of course, of course. I mean, no one is asking, but of course, I would say yes if they were.”

Now, more than a decade later, the show premiered on CBS Thursday night. You probably already know this because ads for CBS’ newest procedural “Elsbeth” are everywhere, and the trailer makes it clear that while Elsbeth is still her lovably quirky self, she is stepping into a new role (and bringing her many patterned tote bags with her.) Instead of being Chicago’s lawyer savant, Elsbeth has moved to New York City to serve as an outside observer of the NYPD, fulfilling the consent decree requirement in a wrongful arrest lawsuit. Basically, her job is to observe the NYPD as the NYPD investigates crimes.

But anyone who watched her guest star in 14 episodes of “The Good Wife” or five episodes of “The Good Fight” knows that Elsbeth is incapable of being a silent observer because she talks a lot and sees too much. Elsbeth’s ability to appear easily distracted by what’s around her (jewelry, bookcases, dresses, wallpaper, pictures of penguins) and her unusual way of speaking and trailing off mid-thought often leads people to underestimate her, to think she’s scatter-brained or “easily confused” or “easily entertained.” She isn’t someone willing to settle for the easy answer or a convenient criminal.

In Elsbeth’s second episode of “The Good Wife” in Season 1, a character asks her, “How are you ahead of the police on this?” Elsbeth replies, “They’re not looking.”

Even if they were looking, they wouldn’t see the world Elsbeth does, but is that enough to carry a show? But can Elsbeth pull it off? Can she make the transition from beloved guest star to titular lead character?

Elsbeth’s ability to interpret what no one else around her sees is what viewers should expect of her character in the spinoff. They should also prepare for her unique perspective to create problems, especially with Captain C.W. Wagner (Wendell Pierce) and Detective Smullen (Danny Mastrogiorgio), and for her quirkiness to obfuscate her genius, at least temporarily.

At a crime scene, Elsbeth’s “weird, savant stuff” reminds me of Adrian Monk or Shawn Spencer, the lead characters in some of USA Network’s most beloved, character-driven procedurals. Like them, I expect for her brilliance and quirkiness to drive the show. Also, her legal background gives the show’s writers even more dimensions to explore, which is why “Elsbeth” has the potential to become an inspired mash-up of “Psych,” “Monk” and “Suits.” Perhaps the series might also fill the void for everyone who binged or rewatched “Suits” in 2023 and is looking for their new show (especially for those in Robert Zane withdrawal because Pierce makes an excellent NYPD captain).

Elsbeth’s quirkiness — a uniqueness Preston has referred to as “cayenne pepper” — adds spice and levity to “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” Her character usually appears when the situation is dire — when the lawyers need a lawyer or “The Firm” needs a lawyer — and her creative problem-solving elevates the game the lawyers are always playing in such a delightful and surprising way that viewers want more.

This dynamic is also incredibly successful because, in addition to Preston’s phenomenal acting, Elsbeth is the polar opposite of the lawyers around her. The seriousness of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) and practicality of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) and graceful grit of Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) balance her in scenes and storylines.

Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni, and Stephen Moyer as Alex Modarian in the pilot episode of "Elsbeth."
Carrie Preston stars as Elsbeth Tascioni, and Stephen Moyer as Alex Modarian in the pilot episode of "Elsbeth."
Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

But, when Preston is leading the show, will viewers begin to want less — less moments spent obsessing about New York as if she’s never been there (long-time fans remember the antisemitic bear in Season 5 of “The Good Wife”), less scenes in which she’s obsessing over objects or violating social norms, less time spent pondering theories out loud in an incomprehensible way? Preston is an incredible actor, so I think the real question is if the material she’s working with gives Elsbeth room to be a whole person instead of a quirky cliché.

This line is hard to balance, but shows such as “Monk” and “Psych” did pull it off. This gives me hope that the confines of the procedural as a genre will provide enough structure to balance Elsbeth’s zaniness. But, based on the pilot’s many moments in which Elsbeth’s idiosyncrasies feel unnatural, I think the writers have more work to do to ensure that the spinoff is not chipping away at the full character the “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” worked so hard to develop. The secondary characters also need to be strong enough to hold this line, which, right now, it appears only Pierce is able to do.

Elsbeth has to have cases interesting enough to showcase her intellectual thought processes, which I don’t think the pilot’s predictable first case gives her. The episode opens with the crime, which is a confusing choice for a pilot — at one point I paused the show to make sure I was actually watching “Elsbeth” (she doesn’t appear until six minutes into the episode) — but it is a style characteristic of procedurals. In this case, it’s not a question of “who did it.” The conflict is if Elsbeth — the only one who suspects foul play in a wealthy college student’s death — will be able to find the proof to prove it. There’s also the question of if she’s even allowed to assist in the investigation because she’s supposed to be an observer. But, as fans of Elsbeth know, she is capable of twisting definitions (and legalities) to justify her means.

The difference in “Elsbeth” is the ends. “You’re not a defense lawyer anymore. The truth means putting people in jail,” Elsbeth is told at one point during the pilot. Earlier in the episode, she tells Captain Wagner that she took this job because after 30 years as a lawyer, she was tired of representing clients who she sometimes knew were guilty: “My work could be all about finding the truth and not just some better way of telling a lie for someone I was defending.”

The consistently great part of Elsbeth’s appearances in both previous shows was her ability to tell better lies, to concoct better stories, to keep the people she’s representing out of legal trouble. What will her life look like when she does the opposite? How will she handle the nuances of knowing someone is guilty but finding that person likable? How will it feel when she’s responsible for putting someone in jail instead of keeping them out?

I hope “Elsbeth” leans into the questions that arise from seeking the truth — a concept as complicated as the lead’s own mind. After almost 15 years of loving Elsbeth, I want to see her evolve, to have renewed purpose, to build upon what made her so great in the shows that came before this one.

“Elsbeth” isn’t designed to be groundbreaking or “prestige TV,” but it has all the ingredients (if they can be properly combined) to become a procedural drama that gives viewers something to look forward to watching each week, and, most Thursday nights, that’s all I really need.

“Elsbeth” premiered on CBS Thursday. It is available for streaming on Paramount+.

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