review

Elsbeth: The Good Wife’s most beloved character finally has her own spin-off series

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Elsbeth is a spin-off from The Good Wife.
Elsbeth is a spin-off from The Good Wife. Credit: CBS/Paramount

The long-running American legal drama The Good Wife had its share of oddball or memorable recurring characters.

But from Martha Plimpton’s Patti, a crafty lawyer who shamelessly used her pregnancy for sympathy from the jury to Michael J. Fox’s Louis Canning, a foil for the series’ lead character Alicia Florrick, none were as beloved as Carrie Preston’s Elsbeth Tascioni.

The colourful lawyer may seem scatterbrained and a kook, but she was whip-smart with a top legal mind. Her power was in how she disarmed her opponents who underestimated a middle-aged, smiley woman in vibrant clothes running around with three tote bags.

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When The Good Wife wrapped up in 2016, fans clamoured for an Elsbeth spin-off and while it didn’t happen then – we got biting political satire The Good Fight instead, on which the character guested five times – it’s happening now.

Elsbeth is a delightful expansion of The Good Wife cinematic universe shifting away from legal drama to the crime procedural space.

And rather than a whodunit, the killer is revealed at the start of each episode with the tension hinging off how Elsbeth will figure out the dastardly deed.

Elsbeth is a spin-off from The Good Wife.
Wendell Pierce as a police boss in Elsbeth. Credit: CBS/Paramount

The inverted story structure is a risky gambit because viewers and readers usually like to play armchair detective – all those smug cries of “I knew it, I figured it out before them”. Without that puzzle to solve, you really have to be confident that your mystery solver is compelling enough for the audience to follow and get behind.

The reference point the show has been using on the promo trail is Columbo, and certainly Peter Falk’s crumpled detective is the paragon of the genre but more recent examples have included Rian Johnson’s Poker Face with Natasha Lyonne’s spiky Charlie or episodes of Monk and Law & Order.

The format works here because Elsbeth has the charisma to carry it. Even when the case of the week isn’t the strongest (and they’re not all winners), the character is our anchor.

Elsbeth transplants from the world of The Good Wife, Chicago, to New York, where her enthusiasm for everything sees her play tourist in the self-proclaimed greatest city in the world. She’s been hired to be an observer at the NYPD after the force was dinged for a series of bad arrests.

Elsbeth is a spin-off from The Good Wife.
Jane Krakowski guest stars in the second episode. Credit: CBS/Paramount

She’s there to make sure they’re above board but standing in the background has never been Elsbeth’s thing. She sees too much and her deductive reasoning game is too strong.

The crimes are “very New York” — one episode is set backstage at the Lincoln Center while another concerns the death of a widely disliked dragon lady of an apartment building’s co-op board.

It dragoons some bigwig guest stars to be the centrepiece of each episode — Preston’s True Blood co-star Stephen Moyer as a director, Jane Krakowski as a ruthless real estate agent, Blair Underwood as a tennis coach, Jesse Tyler Ferguson as an Andy Cohen-esque TV producer, while other guests include Keegan Michael-Key, Gina Gershon, Retta and Succession’s Adrian Moayed.

The tone is relatively fun — even though, obviously, murder is not laughs-a-plenty — and the format means it’s dippable week-in-week-out. There’s a longer arc but it drops a few nuggets each episode so you’re never bogged down in too much narrative.

Elsbeth is light-hearted and very easy to like, a diverting series with a charming character that always should have had her own series.

Elsbeth is streaming now on Paramount+

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The front page of The Nightly for 22-07-2024

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