No longer a side character, 'Elsbeth' comes into focus. But don't call it a spin-off

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 spin-off “The Good Fight” — starring Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, a white lawyer who lands at a Black law firm after losing her life savings — 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 returns Thursday, with back-to-back episodes, after a weeks-long 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.

The idea to build a show around Elsbeth took form in 2020. The Kings found their television queue, full of serialized show after serialized show, many with high-wire concepts and a limited number of episodes, increasingly daunting to watch instead of being a source of respite after a long day of work.

“We’d be writing during the day and then we’d come back and we’d try to watch something and we’d be like, ‘We don’t really have it in us to climb that mountain tonight,’” Robert King said. “So, we’d always turn on a[n episode of] ‘Columbo.’”

Peter Falk originated the eccentric, cigar-chomping homicide detective in 1968, and through 10 seasons and countless reruns in syndication, he become part of TV’s crime-solving iconography. Part of the show’s enduring appeal is tagging along with the unkempt, endlessly resourceful detective as he outsmarts each episode’s suspect, sniffing out clues even his counterparts have overlooked, until a case is cracked. It’s an old-school procedural, in which the stories are self-contained, allowing viewers to drop in and out, while also building a relationship with its namesake. The Kings, who’ve deftly elevated and updated the well-worn format over their career with shows like “The Good Wife,” “The Good Fight” and “Evil,” wanted to create their own Columbo-like hero.

“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.” On a network that has become synonymous with building its programming around franchise properties, including “FBI” and “NCIS,” “Elsbeth,” much like its namesake, is an idiosyncratic addition to the roster: Though it revolves around a known character from “The Good Wife” universe, it breaks free from the conventions of its predecessors, which were often fueled by serialized, urgent stories that examined and prodded the structures of power that shape our lives. 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 spin-off, its creators say.

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

Of course, part of the charm of Elsbeth on “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” is how she stood out in contrast to the more serious, buttoned-up characters around her. Would her light be less bright with a tone and format change? Would an abundance of Elsbeth be too much? Jonathan Tolins, who was brought in as the series’ showrunner, admitted it was a concern.

“I was a little nervous about it because when you have a character who has always been a side dish — that’s how she describes herself in one of the episodes — and you move that to the center of the plate, there’s always the fear that it’s going to be too much or annoying or something,” Tolins says. “Now, fortunately, Carrie Preston is incredibly watchable, and projects the kind of warmth and intelligence that keeps her from crossing that line. But we’re always very conscious of it.”

Like “Columbo,” “Elsbeth” features changing cases and an eye-popping roster of guest stars to bring some wild moments and characters to life. During the Hollywood strikes last year, Tolins spent time watching almost every single episode of “Columbo” to study the types of clues and cases that made the show engaging; he also watched “Poker Face” to see how another show played with the form. “Elsbeth’s” way into the format, Tolins said, would be leaning into its New York setting.

“We looked at each episode being another kind of slice of life, a different chapter of looking at some particular thing in New York,” he said. “The more specific we made the case of the week to the particular oddities of the world we were setting it in, the more satisfying the case.”

Among the players who’ve been cast are Stephen Moyer as an acting teacher and director responsible for a student’s death. This week sees Jane Krakowski as a high-powered Manhattan real estate broker with big-name clients and bigger secrets; Linda Lavin as a co-op board president from hell; and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as an Andy Cohen-type mastermind behind a popular reality TV franchise.

“If we learned anything about guest stars, it would be to aim high,” Robert said, noting the wealth of brilliant character actors who have made appearances on “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” And with the change in setting, the Kings say they don’t feel locked into the “The Good Wife” universe when it comes to guest stars — so, viewers might see actors they’ve met before on “The Good Wife” or “The Good Fight” in a different role in the “Elsbeth” world.

It all works together to keep Elsbeth Tascioni moving as the daffy and razor-sharp observer now at the center of the story each week.

“That character, at the outset, really was about function,” Michelle said. “[But] she grew into such a multi-dimensional character that she went so far beyond the function she initially had to serve.”

The kite is still in flight.

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