‘Elsbeth’ Review: Catching Criminals The Cute, Colorful Way!

If you're looking for some light viewing, you're in luck. If you're looking for the moral complexity of 'The Good Wife' or 'The Good Fight,' your search is not over.

Carrie Preston in Elsbeth. Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

In 2009, producers Robert and Michelle King brought us The Good Wife, one of the last great broadcast network dramas. Launching under the guise of a typical CBS courtroom procedural, The Good Wife soon revealed itself to be a complex character drama on par with its cable contemporaries. Its sequel series, The Good Fight, a launch title for streaming service CBS All Access (now Paramount+), ambitiously pushed well beyond the courtroom to explore the maddening realities of the modern post-truth technocracy. By comparison, Elsbeth, the Kings’ third installment in their ongoing universe, is very light television. It’s a cute, colorful howcatchem that will only get filed as a drama because it runs for an hour. Elsbeth may, like its title character, turn out to be less airy and frivolous than it seems, but based on the three episodes provided to critics, it’s just an inoffensive diversion.

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Carrie Preston returns as perky attorney Elsbeth Tascioni, the role that won her an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series a decade ago. Preston portrayed Tascioni in 14 episodes of The Good Wife and five of The Good Fight, and in both series her implacable optimism and bizarre fashion sense stand in stark contrast against the bleak backdrop of legal corruption and corporate intrigue. Here Elsbeth is the star, and naturally, the tone has shifted in her favor. Elsbeth has left Chicago to take a new gig in the Big Apple, and she embraces it with the enthusiasm and energy of that character from Annie who arrives with “three bucks, two bags,” etc. Less thrilled are the folks at the NYPD’s Major Crimes Unit, who are forced to accept Elsbeth as an observer in response to a string of wrongful arrest lawsuits. Elsbeth politely interjects into murder investigations and uses her finely-tuned instincts and weaponized ADHD to follow the leads that the jaded city cops overlook, bringing the real killers to justice and sparing the department further, extremely well-deserved embarrassment.

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

Elsbeth employs the inverted mystery format popularized by Columbo and resurrected by last year’s Poker Face. First, we see how the killer does the deed and covers their tracks, then we follow Elsbeth, who immediately twigs that the police are after the wrong suspect and spends the rest of the episode gathering the necessary evidence to justify her hunch, with the perpetrator continually trying to throw her off course. Playing Watson to her uncommonly personable Holmes is Carra Patterson as Officer Kaya Blanke, an appropriately named everywoman with whom Elsbeth makes fast friends. The show’s other regular is Wendell Pierce (The Wire’s Bunk) as Captain C.W. Wagner, who may not be pleased by Elsbeth’s presence but is willing to hear out her theories. Elsbeth is also paired up with a rotating cast of detectives who begin as adversaries who stubbornly pursue the most obvious explanation for each crime, but who eventually end up backing her up.

Formula fiction is inherently comforting, but Elsbeth is particularly cozy. Though the murder that opens its pilot episode is fairly grim, the following two installments lean into the goofy black comedy of Only Murders in the Building. (One episode feels deliberately derivative of the Hulu comedy, though it’s only half as witty.) Save for Preston’s True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer in the pilot, the guest cast is populated primarily with comedic actors such as Modern Family’s Jesse Tyler Ferguson and 30 Rock’s Jane Krakowski. There’s no suspense to speak of, nor does that seem to be the goal. Where Columbo or Poker Face may use the inverted mystery format to heighten drama or throw interesting curve balls at the audience, Elsbeth has yet to do so. We’re meant to enjoy the process of solving a murder because the title character enjoys it, and in that modest aim, the show succeeds. Preston is delightful, the gags are worth a chuckle, and the hour goes by quickly. 

For viewers looking for a breezy, predictable, low-stakes adventure with a likable leading lady, Elsbeth should fit the bill just fine. But for fans of the shows that preceded it, Elsbeth is likely to be a disappointment. The Good Wife and The Good Fight were incisive dramas about morally gray characters navigating a legal system designed to perpetuate power and punish poverty rather than seek real justice. It’s not out of the question that Elsbeth will turn out to have teeth after all, and tempting viewers with something familiar and gradually acclimatizing them to more ambitious television is part of Robert and Michelle King’s M.O. (See both The Good Wife and Evil.) For now, it’s the kind of show you put on while you’re doing the dishes, and if your plates are piling up, you could certainly do worse.

‘Elsbeth’ premieres on February 29th on CBS.

‘Elsbeth’ Review: Catching Criminals The Cute, Colorful Way!