‘Elsbeth’ is a well-executed, frothy delight

Say “Elsbeth Tascioni” in a crowded room, and those in the know may look — for a fraction of a second — a tiny bit like her. Pleased. Alert. A little goofy. Their eyes might widen as Carrie Preston’s do when she plays the loopy attorney who steals the show whenever she guest-stars in “The Good Wife” or “The Good Fight.”

It was big news, therefore, when TV power couple Michelle and Robert King announced that their next project for CBS would be “Elsbeth,” a spinoff starring Preston as the deceptively daffy redhead. Elsbeth! Could Tascioni — whose quirks offered a pleasant but highly potent contrast to the poised reserve in vogue at “Good Wife” law firms such as Lockhart/Gardner — anchor a show herself?

The answer, briefly, is yes — but perhaps at the expense of the show’s world, which feels a little thin.

The premise of the new series, which premieres Feb. 29, is implausible but straightforward: The New York Police Department has been operating under a consent decree issued by the Justice Department requiring an outside observer to confirm that it is, indeed, complying with the law. This task falls to Tascioni. She relocates from Chicago to New York and starts genially nosing around the department, annoying everyone, particularly the guy in charge, Captain C.W. Wagner (Wendell Pierce, playing a mildly different kind of cop than he did in “The Wire”). The sole exception is Kaya Blanke (Carra Patterson), a lonely and competent police officer who warms quickly to Tascioni and appreciates her talents. Tascioni turns out to be better at observing crime scenes than the police she’s ostensibly there to watch. Relieved she no longer needs to defend the guilty, Tascioni notices details the cops miss. Solves cases. Even extracts confessions.

You can see the jokes coming. This is a fish-out-of-water story whose chief pleasure turns out to be Tascioni’s flair for cheerfully besting insufferable New Yorkers. Perennially delighted and deeply uncool, Tascioni gabbles about the wonders of the city while her interlocutors roll their eyes at her lack of sophistication and taste. Her trademark awe, so apparently guileless, causes people to underestimate her. Result? The sometime attorney, who is supposed to be supervising, ends up moonlighting as an amateur detective.

Skeptics might observe that a spinoff of a spinoff sounds a little unpromising. Viewers may notice that the case-of-the-week format, in which the sleuth notices things the police don’t, isn’t exactly carving out new ground. Neither is this latest entry into a long-proud tradition of female detectives weaponizing the way people misjudge them. (Miss Marple sends her regards!) The Kings are open, too, about the fact that the show’s howcatchem structure — in which the murderer is (usually) revealed up front — is borrowed from “Columbo,” which they binged during the pandemic.

Novelty, in short, is not the draw. But Elsbeth Tascioni is a fabulous creation. And if the glut of ambitious shows that fell short during Peak TV taught us anything, it’s that the nuts and bolts (your plot, your dialogue) are trickier to master than they might seem. There’s a lot to appreciate about the humor and skill and sheer muscular competence that goes into good, solid, episodic network TV. “Elsbeth” benefits from terrific guest stars (Jane Krakowski plays a real estate agent for the super-rich, Jesse Tyler Ferguson a reality TV producer). And the main ingredient — a memorable character you want to see wander around a TV world — is here in spades.

On these fronts, “Elsbeth” just works. Every scene is efficient, entertaining and clear. The jokes are fun, the outcomes gratifying. We get some winks about what makes “good TV,” some tantalizing backstory on Tascioni herself and plenty of footage of our hero hilariously and clumsily goading murderers.

But if “Elsbeth” succeeds as episodic TV, confidently establishing the cast of each new case, its serial aspect — the longer story building over a few episodes — suffers from the effort to bridge registers that start to feel incompatible. The choice to set a fantasy about a quirky attorney (who changes the course of police investigations by finding tiny relevant facts) in a real-life institution like the NYPD, with its documented history of egregious misconduct, racial profiling and indifference to exonerating facts … well, it can seem flippant.

And surprising, given Michelle and Robert King’s previous projects, which famously grappled with the urgent controversies of the day. “The Good Wife” featured many cases and ethical quandaries clearly drawn from real-life events; the finale of the first season dealt with police corruption, specifically. “The Good Fight” was a years-long effort to address the ethical and philosophical challenges of the Donald Trump presidency. They weren’t all home runs, but there’s a pattern here of bold and even risky engagement, filtered though it was through cynical lawyers and politicians.

End of carousel

“Elsbeth,” by contrast (in the episodes made available to critics, anyway), is charming escapism. The series’s approach feels nostalgic, pitched to a world where George Floyd (and Amadou Diallo and Eric Garner) never died and where the movements (and backlashes) sparked by those deaths never happened. Despite the ostensibly adversarial relationship between Tascioni and the NYPD she’s there to monitor, the show confines itself mostly to the uncomplicated joys of detecting and exposing murderers, usually through a wholesome collaboration between Tascioni and Blanke.

One longs to see Tascioni’s ferocity in action. There are glimmers of how she might assert herself against the police if and when they end up on opposite sides. But that just isn’t the show’s core. The first three episodes feature target-rich (and literally rich) environments, including a university theater department, a Real Housewives-style franchise and a New York apartment complex of the sort featured in “Only Murders in the Building.” But there are no particularly savage sendups of either the principals or the police. The show favors mild bemusement over withering satire or heavy judgment.

That’s a fine and appealing tone that builds (again) on a long tradition: Many a detective in the genre is known for easily outperforming the police, who tend to be depicted as well-meaning but overworked dullards.

But the NYPD, specifically, is a poor fit for that rubric. It’s too loaded an institution for a show focused on charming gotchas and crime-busting high jinks than police procedures — or corruption. There are hints that the show plans to confront some of this. But, three episodes in, we’re not much closer to understanding the substance of the consent decree. (Tascioni claims she’s there to make sure things are done “right,” but never quite clarifies what was being done wrong.) The cops themselves are generally depicted as grouchy but basically decent, smart and amenable to correction if the evidence shows they’re making a mistake.

Put another way, the show feels a little unstuck in time, populated by more fantasies and conventions and clichés than characters. Its world feels quite small, especially because the cast changes so much from case to case. The main people in Tascioni’s orbit are Blanke, whom she quickly befriends, and her boss back in Chicago, with whom she only speaks on the phone.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Elsbeth Tascioni is a force unto herself, and she can easily anchor a pleasant detective show in a fantasy world. It’s less clear whether — when real and painful specificity surfaces — she can anchor a crime procedural in the real one.

Elsbeth (10 episodes) premieres Feb. 29 on CBS, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.


Leave a Comment