In ‘Elsbeth,’ a Quirky Side Character Becomes a Quirky Lead

While filming the new crime show “Elsbeth” in an Upper West Side apartment in January, Carrie Preston, playing the title character, tentatively patted the guest star Peter Grosz on the arm. The combination of the gesture and Elsbeth’s hesitant expression made the attempt at comfort come across as simultaneously awkward and funny — and unmistakably true to the consistently awkward, funny Elsbeth.

Robert King, who created the series with his wife, Michelle, and was directing that particular episode, chuckled in delight as he watched on a monitor. Nearby the showrunner, Jonathan Tolins, said, “She always finds things like that,” referring to Preston’s flourish. “That was probably not in the script.”

Premiering Thursday on CBS, “Elsbeth” is a new project but Elsbeth herself is not. One reason Preston inhabits her fully enough to improvise such small, telling gestures is because she has been playing her for almost 14 years.

Fans of legal dramas have long been acquainted with Elsbeth Tascioni, a seemingly scatterbrained but diabolically effective redheaded lawyer who popped up toward the end of the first season of “The Good Wife” in May 2010. From the start, the Kings, who also created that hit show, thought of Elsbeth as an answer to Columbo, the Los Angeles homicide detective that Peter Falk played in a series, then specials, between 1968 and 2003.

“I didn’t really watch ‘Columbo’ — it was a little before my time,” said Preston, 56. But “I knew he was a little unorthodox in the way he did things. I was like, ‘OK, I get it: They want people to not see her coming.’”

The Kings kept bringing Elsbeth back for guest stints on both “The Good Wife” and its first spinoff, “The Good Fight.” Despite her relatively limited screen time, she became a fan favorite, and Preston landed two Emmy nominations and one win, in 2013, for playing her.

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