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In the mood for a sweet, off-beat murder mystery? 'Elsbeth' is on the case

Carrie Preston stars an an astute but unconventional attorney in <em>Elsbeth</em>.
Elizabeth Fisher
Carrie Preston stars an an astute but unconventional attorney in Elsbeth.

Carrie Preston won an Emmy Award in 2013, as outstanding guest actress, for her portrayal of a seemingly scatter-brained lawyer on the CBS series The Good Wife. Her character, Elsbeth Tascioni, really was a character. Her conversations tended to derail into unexpected directions. Her questions never seemed to follow any logical path, but they always had a purpose – and she was keenly, almost uncomfortably, observant.

Michelle and Robert King, the writing team that created The Good Wife to showcase the talent of Julianna Margulies, quickly recognized Preston's Elsbeth as a valuable supporting player. She appeared in six of the seven seasons of The Good Wife, and won her Emmy there.

Then she returned as the same character in The Good Fight, which the Kings wrote as a sequel series starringChristine Baranski. And now, there's a third series, this time bringing Preston front and center. It's called Elsbeth, and the series pilot was written by co-creators Michelle and Robert King, with him directing the premiere episode.

So what are they up to this time? They've transplanted Elsbeth from Chicago to New York City, where she's been hired to officially observe, and secretly investigate, some of the police there. In her new job, she's given so much latitude, she even can serve as an ad-hoc murder investigator.

Elsbeth, the series, is structured like Poker Face, or, even more obviously, Columbo. I've previewed three episodes, and each begins with viewers seeing the murderer commit the crime ... and then, and only then, does Elsbeth enter the crime scene and start putting the puzzle pieces together.

As with Columbo, each episode features a prominent guest star as the killer of the week. For the premiere episode of Elsbeth — no spoiler alerts here, because the murder is shown in the opening moments — Stephen Moyer from True Blood is the special guest star. He plays an acting teacher and director who has found a way to dispose of his much younger former student and lover, by making it look like suicide. When Elsbeth arrives at the victim's apartment, she ignores the dead body and heads straight for the bathroom – where she pokes around until a detective notices her and objects.

The police aren't sure what to make of her, of course. Wendell Pierce, that wonderful actor from The Wire, plays Capt. Wagner, who is exasperated one moment, impressed the next — which is how everyone reacted to Elsbeth way back on The Good Wife. Carra Patterson plays Kaya Blanke, an officer who soon becomes a friend as well as a colleague.

But as with Columbo, the most important dynamic is between the investigator and the killer. Elsbeth, like Columbo, is persistent and underestimated. But where Columbo kept his theories close to his vest, or his raincoat, Elsbeth almost delights in revealing her hole cards, to unsettle her prime suspect. Preston and Moyer worked together on HBO's True Blood, and it's fun to see them together again here – this time as adversaries.

In an era where so much TV is so dark and depressing, Elsbeth stands out as a sweet, happy little treat.

Other episodes shown to critics feature, as the murderers of the week, Jane Krakowski from30 Rock and Jesse Tyler Ferguson from Modern Family. Both of them bring a playful energy, sparring with Preston's Elsbeth – and she really sparkles, with and without them, and carries the series with ease.

Also, the show's New York locations add even more to the flavor, and the enjoyment. All together, they make Elsbeth an undeniable throwback to an earlier TV era. But so is Poker Face, which I love for many of the same reasons: Great leading role; delightful guest stars; decent, clever mysteries that are solved by the end of each episode. And in an era where so much TV is so dark and depressing, Elsbeth stands out as a sweet, happy little treat.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: February 28, 2024 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio of this story, as in a previous web version, we incorrectly credit Michelle and Robert King with writing all 10 episodes of Elsbeth's first season. In fact, Michelle and Robert King wrote the show's pilot, showrunner Jonathan Tolins wrote the second episode and a variety of other writers wrote the remaining episodes.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.