Who Is This Strange Woman, and What Is She Doing Here?

Credit…Photo illustration by Lucy Jones

The most-watched streaming series of 2023, it turns out, was “Suits.” All your faves — the conceptually and emotionally difficult ones, the family-trauma dramedies, the zombie soaps and franchise space operas — were as dust in comparison with a bouncy basic-cable legal procedural. If Gen Z viewers are looking at the buffet of TV content and choosing old-school blue-sky procedurals over “Succession” or “The Mandalorian,” what becomes of the world all these streamers and premium-cable networks worked so hard to build?

CBS might have the answer, and her name is Elsbeth Tascioni. This defense attorney, played by Carrie Preston, was a beloved guest character on “The Good Wife” and its sequel/spinoff, “The Good Fight,” both created by the network veterans Robert and Michelle King. Tascioni is, in the parlance of today’s internet, a “weird little guy.” Outfitted in blaring patterns and carrying numerous quilted tote bags at all times, she is both hard to miss and easy to overlook. She appeared in just under 20 episodes across both series but delighted fans as one of the strangest and funniest running gags in two series already filled to the brim with running gags and high-wattage guest stars. Where Julianna Margulies on “The Good Wife” is all elegance and eroticism, Elsbeth is kooky and oddly mannered. Where Christine Baranski on “The Good Fight” is all gravitas and moral outrage, Elsbeth is non sequiturs and slapstick — a whimsical agent of chaos, an odd bird among all those silken and self-serious lawyers.

Now she has her own show, “Elsbeth.” The previous entries in the Kings’ trilogy took place in Chicago, but “Elsbeth” sends Tascioni to take Manhattan, Muppet-style. Without any of her former co-stars to contextualize her, she begins as a fish out of water. She has been tasked with observing a police precinct after a series of wrongful arrests and other violations (and, secretly, with collecting evidence for a corruption case). She wriggles her way into ongoing investigations, stymying police detectives and, almost always, proving them to be arrogant dummies. She is, in other words, an annoyance. Nearly everyone she meets reacts the same way: Who is this strange woman, and what is she doing here? Viewers might ask the same. Why would anybody greenlight a spinoff about a minor character who appeared in a smattering of episodes of two moderately successful series over a period of 14 years? Who is this strange woman, and what is she doing here?

The answer is that Elsbeth Tascioni, and the oddball detective procedural in which she now lives, exist because Robert and Michelle King know what they’re doing. They have always been particularly self-conscious creators of network procedurals, working in a kind of uncanny valley: The shows are immersive, dramatic crowd-pleasers, but they are also playful, ironic, even occasionally postmodern in their building out of intellectual property. “Elsbeth” isn’t just a spinoff; it’s a spinoff about spinoffs.

From the perspective of what we can now call the “Good Wife” Televisual Universe, the very existence of “Elsbeth” is a pretty funny joke. It is a canny management of the industry’s obsession with reused intellectual property, but it is also a satisfying mockery of it, a rogue spinoff that has become self-aware. Elsbeth isn’t just a fish out of water in Manhattan. She’s a fish out of water on her own show.

This estrangement is embedded in the visual language of the show. Subway ads for the series featured a shot of uniformed police officers, a burly polyester wall, with Preston seemingly poking her head in from out of frame, wearing a pink overcoat, a crocheted scarf and a foam Statue of Liberty crown. This is Elsbeth, they announced: Nobody knows who she is, but she certainly doesn’t belong here. Scenes in the show itself are often blocked as though a passing tourist has happened upon the filming of a “Law & Order” episode, butted her way into the scene and ended up solving the murder. At the start of the third episode, we see a row of bystanders behind caution tape on a dark Manhattan street, their bodies a gray woolen barrier — until we spot a soft pom-pom bobbing up and down behind them, straining for a view. That’s Elsbeth, who must crouch and sneak through a forest of legs to get to her crime scene. There’s a series of shots, repeated in several episodes, in which a central-casting homicide detective is interviewing an eyewitness; the camera moves back and forth, capturing the interviewee at a lower angle and the commanding cop at a higher one, until the diminutive Elsbeth invariably scoots her way into the cop’s frame, taking it over from beneath. They never see her coming.

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