[Baltimore Sun] ‘Elsbeth’ review: ‘The Good Wife’ spinoff tries (and fails) to be a quirkier version of ‘Columbo’

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Memorable guest characters were a hallmark of “The Good Wife” during its seven-season run on CBS from 2009 to 2016, and Elsbeth Tascioni was one of the more distinctive. Quirky and easily distracted, she was underestimated and therefore a formidable advocate (or foe) in the courtroom. Played by Carrie Preston with an offbeat cadence and winning sincerity, Elsbeth was a terrific contrast to the glossier, more outwardly sophisticated lawyers in her midst. She worked like gangbusters in small doses. But can a character like that carry an entire show?

“Elsbeth” attempts an answer.

CBS’s latest procedural makes some key changes to her circumstances. She’s no longer based in Chicago (the setting for “The Good Wife” and the show’s first spinoff “The Good Fight”) but has relocated to New York to provide her services as an “outside observer” monitoring the police department after one too many wrongful arrest lawsuits.

But instead of using her legal background and impressive intelligence to weed out corruption or excessive force, creators Michelle and Robert King, along with showrunner Jonathan Tolins, have Elsbeth working in concert with the police, nosing around crime scenes and interviewing witnesses until she solves the case.

It’s a premise that borrows from shows like “Monk” or “Psych” or “Elementary” — long-running successes, all — but the execution leaves much to be desired. “Elsbeth” follows the cat-and-mouse formula of “Columbo,” with a murder unfolding at the top of each episode. This requires a certain amount of storytelling skill to pull off because the audience is already ahead of the main character. We know whodunit. The thrill is in watching our sleuth outsmart the culprit through a combination of deductive reasoning and sly but seemingly harmless questioning of the guilty party. And yet there’s nothing about Elsbeth’s approach or methods that feels intentional — or draws you in.

Her gung-ho presence should make her a ringer, with her fluttery affectation and tote bags loaded up on each arm — no criminal would clock her as a serious threat to their scheme. Elsbeth isn’t lacking self-awareness either, she knows she’s a bit of an oddball. This should create a more interesting dynamic than it does. If only she had a point of view or signature strategy. Something. She bumbles from one observation to the next with her confidant/chaperone, a patrol officer played by Carra Patterson. Every so often they report to Wendell Pierce’s doubting police captain.

Preston is as talented as they come, but she has little to work with here. Patterson and Pierce are given even less. This can’t be creatively fulfilling for anyone, with Elsbeth reduced to a collection of tics and unbridled enthusiasm. What happened to those fantastic chess moves that once defined her as a lawyer?

From left: Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni and Wendell Pierce as Captain Wagner in “Elsbeth.” (Elizabeth Fisher/CBS)

If you squint, you can see glimmers of the show’s potential. The Kings have a knowing and entertaining interest in pop culture and riff on it in ways that are just this side of camp. One episode is centered around a “Real Housewives”-esque series called “Lavish Ladies.” Another is a parody of “Only Murders in the Building.” The guest stars are first-rate and haveing a ball, from Linda Lavin to Jane Krakowski to Jesse Tyler Ferguson to Stephen Moyer, Preston’s old pal from “True Blood.”

But as a show, “Elsbeth” seems uninterested in capturing the humor, intelligence and fun of the Kings’ previous endeavors. Even with her perpetually sunny disposition, it makes no sense that Elsbeth would be so eager and wide-eyed to embed with the police after a 30-year career as a defense attorney. She may seem flaky at first glance, but she was never the simple-minded naif we see here.

I’ve been rewatching “The Good Wife” recently and am reminded how great the show was for most of its run. Rarely did it take itself too seriously, and it did a better job than most at threading the needle between its case-of-the-week format and servicing longer ongoing storylines. It was — and remains — smarter and tangier than almost anything else on television.

It also had a healthy suspicion of law enforcement. So why turn the wonderfully original Elsbeth into this? It’s baffling to see the Kings embrace such blatant copaganda.

“Elsbeth” — 1.5 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: 9 p.m. Thursdays on CBS

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

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