‘Elsbeth’ Is the Quirky New ‘Columbo’ We Didn’t Know We Needed

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/CBS
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/CBS

Elsbeth, the new procedural premiering Thursday night on CBS, is the second official spinoff of the Emmy-winning legal drama The Good Wife. It follows The Good Fight, the sequel series of sorts that ended in 2022 after six seasons of ripped-from-headlines cases and Christine Baranski looking glorious in designer power blazers.

Like The Good Fight, Elsbeth stars a fan-favorite character originally introduced 14 years ago in the first season of The Good Wife: Elsbeth Tascioni, an unconventional and often underestimated attorney played by Carrie Preston, who won an Emmy for the role in 2013.

When it comes to their love of spinoffs, “we’ll be down to the smallest character by the end,” Robert King, who co-created all three series with his wife, Michelle, tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, laughing. “Next it will be David Paymer’s judge,” he jokes, referencing the character that appeared in The Good Wife’s pilot. “It will just be Gus!, with an exclamation point.”

But while The Good Fight was very much a continuation of The Good Wife, which starred Julianna Margulies and ran from 2009 until 2016, what’s remarkable about Elsbeth is how, lead character aside, it isn’t much like its predecessors at all. In fact, “I never thought of it as a Good Wife spinoff,” Michelle King says.

“The difference between this and The Good Fight and Good Wife is the world,” Robert King says. “The Good Fight was a takedown at this time of craziness with Trump. The Good Wife was really about the law and how the law can corrupt. This is not that. This is about seeing the elites taken down a bit through Elsbeth, who seems every bit the non-elite. She loves Cats. She loves The Lion King. She probably would read Glamour magazine from cover to cover, just to see the pictures. She’s that kind of person.”

In other words, if you understand who the character Elsbeth is, you understand the distinctly unique vibe of her show, which is a quirky take on a Columbo-style police procedural more than it is a descendant of The Good Wife’s politics-heavy, legal-thriller universe.

“I like to think of this as a comedy,” Preston tells Obsessed. “I like to think that a really big, bright peacock has been dropped down in the middle of a police procedural. This show is very much in line with some shows from the past—Columbo or Murder She Wrote or any of these kinds of procedurals with an unconventional character at the center. Monk was like that. Knowing that I’m following in the footsteps of those types of characters puts me at ease a little bit.”

In Elsbeth, Elsbeth Tascioni—a colorful name befitting the colorful character—leaves her successful career in Chicago for New York City to work as an attorney supervisor for the NYPD. Elsbeth is someone who, by all accounts, would be described as kooky, or perhaps off-kilter. She’s relentlessly positive and earnest—a rarity in the law profession—going so far as to bring cookies to an interview with a man she suspects of murder. Her outfits are loud and vibrant, a clash of colors, patterns, and fabrics that transform her into the equivalent of walking patchwork quilt—especially when the minimum three tote bags she carries with her at a time are factored into the image.

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As distinctive as her style is her way of thinking and analyzing events, seeing things that others might not and offering perspectives that some would never think about. These are skills, it turns out, that are helpful in solving crimes and cracking cases. Because of her fashion and her personality, Elsbeth is often underestimated or dismissed, which she often capitalizes on when facing formidable opponents or suspects. As Michelle King says, “Her quirkiness is also her superpower.”

“She is very decidedly herself in all situations,” Preston says. “She doesn’t try to edit herself or change who she is. Sometimes she uses that to her advantage, and it’s fun to see her turn on a dime. You think she’s off in the ozone and getting lost in how cool your glasses are, but, really, she's also solving the case and leaning on her intellect and her wit.”

Carrie Preseton stands next to Stephen Moyer in a still from ‘Elsbeth’

Carrie Preston and Stephen Moyer

Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

The nature of who Elsbeth is and the inherent comedy that comes from her personality starkly contrasts against the nature of the cases she helps solve each week. Thursday’s premiere, for example, begins Columbo-style, with the entire first act devoted to the crime. We see a professor at an arts school (played menacingly by Preston’s former True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer) plotting and executing the murder and cover up of one of his students, who was going to expose him for being a sexual predator on campus.

It could be jarring, then, when Elsbeth finally makes her humorous entrance, arriving at the Lincoln Center crime scene via one of those red double-decker sightseeing buses, still wearing the foam Statue of Liberty crown she purchased in all of her excitement to be in New York City. But there’s something infectious about Elsbeth—and a careful balancing of tone on behalf of Preston, the Kings, and showrunner Jonathan Tolan—that makes the disturbing-meets-wacky nature of the series work.

“When Elsbeth comes in, there’s a little bit of zing of pleasure of trying to figure out how she’s going to size up someone who seemed to be so on the ball and so bad,” Robert King says.

“It’s like we’re shining up the Big Apple,” Preston says. “We’re taking the black, white, and gray world of New York City and putting a big splash of color on top of it. It gives us a different perspective on this glorious city, but also on that really well trodden genre of the police procedural.”

When the Kings first contacted Preston about playing Elsbeth on The Good Wife 14 years ago, it was the first time in her career she was outright offered a part. She was on True Blood at the time, and had just done the film Duplicity with Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Robert King saw her in the film and thought she’d be perfect for the part. The only issue: Preston, who had been a blonde all her life, had just dyed her hair red for True Blood.

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“I had to call them and say, ‘Yes, of course I would love to do this, but you should probably take a look at me now, because I don’t look anything like that anymore,’” Preston recalls. The Kings, of course, embraced the red hair. “Then the red hair just kind of became part of how I’m perceived in the industry. So whatever works. Whatever keeps you working, you do.”

The name “Elsbeth Tascioni” was also a bit of fluke. When Preston first got the script, the character was named Elsbeth Mann. She memorized all of her lines that way. She only found out when she got to set that the name didn’t clear legal, and so another last name was used as a replacement. But then that one didn’t clear either, and Tascioni was introduced as an alternative. The source: It was the name of Robert and Michelle King’s daughter’s fifth grade teacher at the time. “When we were doing The Good Wife, to involve our daughter more in the process, we had her name a lot of the characters,” Robert King says. “So almost every lawyer is from her third or fourth grade class.”

Carrie Preston stands next to Wendell Pierce in a still from ‘Elsbeth’

Carrie Preston and Wendell Pierce

Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

While characters from The Good Wife and The Good Fight get brief, occasional mentions in Elsbeth, the whole point of the series is to distance itself from that show’s tone. As fans of The Good Fight, in particular, marveled, that series was so prescient when it came to storylines involving the Trump White House, the alt-right, and corrupt digital tycoons that viewers often wondered how the writers managed to predict the future.

“We’re working on other shows that will scratch that itch, but Elsbeth, we thought, was like cotton candy for the soul,” Robert King says. “Especially, oh my God, with this last year, it’s been a respite.”

“I think Robert and Michelle really wanted to create something that was like a little spoonful of sugar to coat some of the darker things that they had been exploring in these other shows,” Preston says.

To be the purveyor of that spoonful of sugar and, for the first time in her career, the lead of a project is something that Preston says she has a hefty amount of gratitude for. “It’s not that I wouldn't have appreciated getting a show like this when I was younger, but I think I appreciate it more now because it is quite miraculous for anybody, but especially someone who’s not 20,” she says. “It’s a gift. It’s a little bit of a miracle.”

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