Getting to know Elsbeth

Getting to know Elsbeth


By Michael Pickard
February 20, 2024

SHOWRUNNER

The Good Fight attorney Elsbeth Tascioni gets her own series in CBS crime drama Elsbeth. Showrunner Jonathan Tolins breaks down the origins of the show, his relationship with the character and the evergreen comfort of the murder-mystery genre.

While television has changed enormously over the last 10 years – in the way series are both made and watched – some things reassuringly stay the same, not least the demands of making a US network drama.

“We’re shooting episode four right now, I’m in prep for episode five, and we have scripts through episode six and an outline for seven, so it keeps coming at you,” Elsbeth showrunner Jonathan Tolins tells DQ. “I’m working on my cut of episode two. It’s all happening.”

Revolving around a character well known to fans of The Good Wife and The Good Fight, this New-York set crime drama centres on Elsbeth Tascioni, an astute but unconventional attorney who utilises her singular point of view to make unique observations and corner brilliant criminals alongside the NYPD.

After leaving behind her successful legal career in Chicago to tackle a new investigative role in the Big Apple, Elsbeth finds herself jostling with NYPD captain CW Wagner. Carrie Preston reprises her role as Elsbeth, with Wendell Pierce as Captain Wagner and Carra Patterson as Officer Kaya Blanke, who quickly develops an affinity for Elsbeth’s offbeat methods.

Produced by CBS Studios for the CBS network, the series comes from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King. Robert directed the pilot based on a script he wrote with wife Michelle, while Liz Glotzer and Tolins are executive producers.

Tolins has previously worked with the Kings on their political horror-comedy Braindead and The Good Fight, but Elsbeth marks his debut in the showrunner hot seat.

“In some ways it’s very exciting because I get to be the one who answers questions, and people have to take you seriously,” he says. “But the hard part is that it never ends. It’s 24 hours of questions. There’s a thing called decision fatigue, where you get more exhausted the more decisions you have to make – and you have to make an endless number of decisions.

“Fortunately, we have all good people – the other writers, people in the cast, the other producers, everybody on the crew. Everyone knows how to do their job, and everyone really loves the show and cares about it. So I have no problem most of the time just letting people do their thing and just be here to answer questions.”

Tolins’s relationship with the Kings stretches back more than 30 years, but it was Braindead that became the first project they worked on together. He then became part of The Good Fight writers room when the series moved to New York from California, joining for the show’s second season and continuing until it ended after six seasons in 2022.

Jonathan Tolins

“While I was there, I happened to write two episodes in which the character of Elsbeth Tascioni appeared. Robert and Michelle liked the way I wrote her. They came up with the idea of a Columbo-like mystery show with Elsbeth as the main character and sold it to CBS, and they called me.”

Tolins initially thought they might want him to work on their writing staff. “But no, they said they wanted me to run it if the pilot sold – and it went to series,” he says. “It was an amazing thing to hear because it meant they trusted me so much. It’s a little terrifying, but I read the script and I saw what they were trying to do, and I thought it would be incredibly fun to work on.”

The showrunner believes Elsbeth stands out among the plethora of television detectives for her “incredible joy and childlike wonder.” But it’s also her unpredictability that makes her a compelling watch because viewers never know what she will do next, or how far she will go to win her case.

“There is also something so sweet and a little vulnerable about her that means I just find her a joy to write for,” Tolins continues. “Carrie Preston is also such a wonderful actress. It made perfect sense that Elsbeth would be a fun character to put in this format of solving mysteries, because it’s all about watching the gears spin in her head – and Carrie is so good at that. She’s so good at knowing exactly when she’s figuring something out and letting you see it happen in her face. So it just felt natural.”

Having played Elsbeth as a recurring character across almost 20 episodes of The Good Fight and The Good Wife, Preston also brings a deep understanding of the character to this spin-off series. Tolins says the actor is a huge reason the show has been able to attract “first class” guest stars, while also noting the “incredible level of professionalism and grace” she brings to the set.

“Well, she’s a theatre gal and I’m a theatre person. So first of all, I know she’s going to learn the lines,” he says of Preston. “What’s really fun is that I feel like I’ve gotten Elsbeth’s voice and her character enough that I can write lines for her [Preston] and know she’s going to make them delightful and fun. So we’re very lucky. She’s about the best person you could ever have at the top of the call sheet.”

The Elsbeth cast is led by Carrie Preston, with Wendell Pierce among her co-stars

The success of Peacock series Poker Face, which stars Natasha Lyonne and debuted in January last year, has been credited with sparking a renaissance in traditional case-of-the-week detective series such as Columbo that were once the mainstay of US network television, until the streaming boom ushered in more serialised storytelling.

Elsbeth now becomes the latest series to follow that format, and Tolins spent his downtime during the writers strike last year watching every episode of Columbo to better understand that show’s structure. He also watched Poker Face, while his experience on the short-lived 2022 series East New York gave him some experience of being part of a CBS procedural, not knowing he would be running one a year later.

When he signed on to Elsbeth, the pilot had been written and shot, though CBS didn’t greenlight a series until a few days after the start of the writers strike. When the strike concluded, Tolins was able to open a writers room in early October, and filming began at the start of January this year.

“We’re making nine new episodes, so it’ll be 10 in total this season. And in some ways, I’m lucky I don’t have to start with a full season of more than 20 episodes, which is a lot,” he says. “This way we get to do nine and find our footing. Then if people like it and we are fortunate enough to go to a second season, we’ll have built some muscles to help us through the marathon that will come.”

As the showrunner of a network series, it’s the volume of episodes – and the number of production processes running simultaneously across different episodes – that Tolins says is the greatest challenge.

Carra Patterson plays Officer Kaya Blanke in the New York City-set series

“You want to keep everybody happy. You want to keep the trains running on time,” he says. “You also want to make episodes that are a little ambitious, full of surprises and that are compelling. But then you also have time and money limitations that you have to take into consideration.

“So it’s a balancing act. So much of it is just deciding what you should worry about, what you just have to not worry about, what you can do something about and what you have to just let other people handle.”

Elsbeth is now set to debut on CBS on February 29, with Paramount Global Content Distribution handling international sales. Before then, however, the series will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival as part of the Berlinale Series Market Selects this week.

Tolins hopes people come to enjoy the “comforting” mysteries at the heart of the show, which he says also delighted and surprised the writers charged with conceiving and executing the stories as they sought to bring originality and Elsbeth’s unique perspective to a crowded genre.

“It’s very tricky because you want it to be intricate, but you don’t want it to be convoluted,” he says about writing detective stories. “So with all of the writers together, we’ve become this group brain that can tell when an idea is exciting and feels right. There are a lot of stories we could come up with, but if you put them in a show that’s fiction, people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t buy that.’ So you try to find something that is surprising and unexpected but also believable. It’s always a bit of a tightrope.”

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