'Elsbeth' On CBS: Great Character, Poor Execution

“Elsbeth” is a well-meaning sleuth series with a dogged lead character in the tradition of “Columbo.”

But questions on details and issues of taste arose throughout the pilot episode that I watched on Wednesday.

The show centers on Elsbeth Tascioni, long-time Chicago attorney who is well-known among the many devotees of “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” where she first gained TV fame.

Played as always by Carrie Preston (pictured above), the new show has Elsbeth taking up a job in New York City as an outside attorney assigned to monitor and observe New York police as they go about their duties.

The assignment stems from a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of New York in the wake of scandals in the NYPD that are not specified.



So, wacky Elsbeth shows up in New York and in minutes, she gets in the way of everybody, starting with detectives and uniformed police in a crime scene in a high-rise apartment where a young woman from a wealthy family has been found dead.

This sequence was one of the show’s major head-scratchers. Basically, Elsbeth runs into this gaggle of uniformed police on the sidewalk outside the building after disembarking from a double-decker tour bus and still wearing a green Styrofoam Statue of Liberty thingie on her head.

She tells an officer she has an appointment to see one of the detectives (I think). Then, without confirming this stranger’s identity, the officer agrees to escort this person no one has ever seen before up an elevator to a a major crime scene. 

Once there, Elsbeth makes herself at home, even coming in close to eyeball the corpse.

Other details were puzzling, starting with the show’s positioning of Elsbeth as a slack-jawed yokel who acts as if she has never been in a big city before. 

News flash: She comes from Chicago, a very big city filled with some of the biggest and highest skyscrapers on Earth. She is not from Podunk (with apologies to any Podunkians reading this).

In true yokel fashion, she cheerfully tells a drama teacher (a character who figures prominently in the show’s mystery story) that she is eager to see “Cats.”

For a guy who teaches the theater arts in New York City (at what looks to be Juilliard), there is evidence to suggest that he is not aware that “Cats” on Broadway closed in 2017. 

If the show is supposed to be taking place in a pre-2017 time frame, then this is not specified.

After all her sightseeing and her adventures in the crime scene apartment annoying all the cops, sunny Elsbeth strides to the curb outside and, wouldn’t you know it? -- she gets splashed with a shower of gutter water when a cab drives through a puddle that has apparently collected by the curb.

There is only one problem, though. The day is sunny, and there is no visible sign of recent rains. Where this puddle came from is a mystery.

It is also a mystery why the producers of this show chose to start it with the very close-up sight of a huge dagger being inserted slowly into someone’s chest and the gushing of blood afterward.

Later, in another sickening scene, a woman with a plastic bag covering her head is murdered by suffocation. 

It should go without saying, but “Elsbeth” is not “Goodfellas.” It is a TV show made for prime-time network television. The episode I watched was not enhanced by these scenes of shocking violence.

Plus, the essence of the show -- the unconventional sleuthing abilities of Elsbeth -- is more than enough to place this show in the win column, despite its flaws.

Like “Columbo” and, more recently, Peacock’s “Poker Face,” “Elsbeth” is a we-already-know-who-done-it whodunnit.

Elsbeth’s approach is like Columbo’s. Like him, she continually badgers her prime suspect, who she has already pegged as her perpetrator. Her challenge now is to come up with the evidence she needs to nail the murderer.

When she leaves a room, you half expect her to suddenly return and say, “Oh, just one more thing …”

“Elsbeth” premieres Thursday, February 29, at 10 p.m. Eastern on CBS.

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