‘Elsbeth’ Recap, Season 1, Episode 1



Season 1

Episode 1

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Elizabeth Fisher/CBS

You know what’s great about a really well-executed spinoff series? If you already know and love the newly main character, that’s great! If you don’t, it’s no impediment at all to enjoying the show! Say hello (or hello again) to the titular Elsbeth Tascioni, whom you may know from her appearances in The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Elsbeth is a lawyer from Chicago who’s been tasked by the U.S. Department of Justice as an outside observer to the NYPD as part of the terms of a consent decree in a wrongful-arrest case against the department’s Major Case Unit.

Like last year’s Poker FaceElsbeth is a how-and-why-dunit, rather than a whodunit, allowing its pilot episode to sidestep many of the pitfalls so common in pilot episodes. When we know that every episode will run on healthy doses of exposition and character introductions, we’re inclined to forgive dialogue that sounds clunky elsewhere. The question at the heart of each episode is always, “How will Elsbeth solve this one?”

Primarily, Elsbeth solves mysteries by being seemingly quite daffy. She’s prone to tangents and out-of-nowhere questions, and she’s the sharpest knife in the block. Underestimate her at your peril. In fact, I credit her apparently scatterbrained nature with being a big part of what makes her such a good lawyer and investigator; her mind moves so quickly that she notices and processes small and/or overlooked details before others can. What may seem like dismissible dottiness is also a quality Elsbeth turns to her advantage.

The pilot’s crime of the week is the murder of a wealthy undergraduate, actor Olivia Cherry, by her professor/director and former lover, Alex Modarian (Stephen Moyer). Out of spite, blended with a broken heart, Olivia refuses to back down from her threat to report Alex to the dean for using his theater classes and productions as his personal, annually updated dating pool. To avoid the negative repercussions of being outed as a simple womanizer, Alex risks the (even more stringent, to my knowledge) negative repercussions of being found out as a murderer.

It’s too bad Alex hasn’t chosen a life path putting his crafty ways to non-murderous use, because his plan is detailed and pretty well conceived. Having crept into the dressing room during rehearsal to replace Olivia’s medication with something stronger, Alex later lets himself into her apartment with the keys Olivia had demanded he return. Finding her mostly unconscious on the floor, he finishes the deed by staging a death by suicide, complete with related browser history, faked texts courtesy of a cloned SIM card from Olivia’s phone, and a plastic bag taped around Olivia’s neck. Ugh.

Elsbeth arrives at the crime scene the following morning — descending from the double-decker Hip-Hop Tour Bus draped in tote bags and sporting a baby-pink wool coat, a long granny-squares scarf, and Statue of Liberty foam crown — and is quickly ushered to Olivia’s apartment by Officer Kaya Blanke. We know Officer Blanke (Carra Patterson) is a true New Yorker because she’s skeptical of this chatty little redhead and, perhaps more crucially, because she’s drinking out of one of those classic and uniquely New York–y “We Are Happy to Serve You” coffee cups.

The major case unit is investigating Olivia’s death as a suicide, and the detective’s immediate exasperation with Elsbeth’s presence is only fractionally mitigated when he learns that Captain Wagner suggested she attend the investigation. Assessing her first-ever crime scene (“I usually see photos, but this … is better”), she’s reminded of the open houses she likes to attend on Sundays out of curiosity about how other people live and, say, is that wallpaper actually purple fabric? This is the first of several moments that made me think of Elsbeth as the kind of person Cher Horowitz from Clueless may have grown up to be. Elsbeth’s habit of interrupting herself out loud and monologuing quirkily is the Deceptively Professionally Ditzy version of Alicia Silverstone’s immortal readings of classic Cher lines like “Ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size!” and “Did I stumble into some bad lighting? Did my hair get flat?”

Ordinarily, I’d save my costume-design thoughts for the “Just One More Thing” smattering of bullet points at the end of a recap, but Elsbeth’s entire wardrobe and accessories situation is doing too much work not to discuss at some length. In addition to the pink coat in her first scene, she also wears a full-length coral winter coat, fluffy white flip-top mittens, three blazers in tweed bouclé (a.k.a. Chanel tweed), a blazer that can only be described as a fever dream of ’80s couches brought to life, and at least three pussy-bow blouses. That’s not even everything she wears across this single episode. All of her bright colors and power-clashing make Elsbeth stand out against a sea of police uniforms, a visual reminder to everyone that she’s very much not the police, just a harmless, exuberantly dressed oddball. Likewise, the many totes she carries: I lost count early on at six distinct bags. Elsbeth does refer several times to only being in New York for a week, so maybe they only reflect her status as a new arrival without a fixed address, but they also disarmingly scream “scatterbrain coming through!”

Having nipped up to Olivia’s bathroom with Officer Blanke, Elsbeth also makes the acquaintance of the forensics officer and chats amiably with her about New York landmarks to visit as she picks up details about Olivia’s cause of death — not an overdose of lorazepam, but suffocation — and shrewdly peruses the medicine cabinet. Certain details catch her eye and don’t add up to death by suicide: If Olivia was on the brink, why is her diaphragm case empty? Why did she use teeth-whitening strips? And who was a significant enough (presumably) male presence in her life that she’d make space in there for (again, presumably) his Old Irish antiperspirant?

Later, after a little tête-à-tête with Alex, in which he jovially gets the upper hand by shooting down her question about Old Irish (he’s a Ralph Lauren man), Elsbeth doubles back into his office to get her phone. Resuming the conversation with a Columbo-eque “I just want to know about one more thing,” she gets in a more productive rhetorical one-two by showing Alex two text messages that Olivia sent the night of her death and wondering aloud why the punctuation in those messages is so distinct from her usual style. A 20-year-old using two spaces after a period? How curious! Alex may have passed the literal sniff test, but something seems off here, a discomfort he deflects by jokingly summarizing Elsbeth’s (admittedly odd-sounding) murderer profile: “So you want me to keep an eye out for a killer who smells like Old Irish and uses two spaces after periods in texts? You are a funny one.”

The many times Elsbeth goes toe-to-toe with Alex — in his office, at a bar, even at a rehearsal where he explains that bad acting is when the actor’s face and body don’t behave in agreement with each other — as she closes in on her quarry provide some of the most enjoyable scenes of the episode. Carrie Preston and her fellow True Blood alum Stephen Moyer are clearly having a blast and even imbue their scenes together with a bit of the rat-a-tat energy of a screwball comedy. Hepburn and Tracy, but make it a murder investigation!

Elsbeth, Officer Blanke, and Alex stay on this little merry-go-round throughout the episode, with Elsbeth floating hypotheses that Alex either bats away or conjures evidence to point suspicion at others. Meanwhile, Officer Blanke and even Captain Wagner (a deliciously deadpan and beleaguered Wendell Pierce) grow to respect Elsbeth’s methods as she deploys her relentless cheerfulness in the service of getting the real bad guy rather than allowing a blameless TA to take the fall. Alex finally hoists himself on his own petard by being so focused on acting innocent that he forgets that innocent people don’t need to work to make sure their faces and bodies are saying the same things because they’re not acting at all.

When Alex is finally caught red-handed, trying to frame his TA by stashing the SIM card cloning device in the TA’s bag, he’s not even mad at Elsbeth. He enjoyed their sparring and recognizes what a formidable adversary she is. All’s well that ends well, though Alex should definitely have dated women other than ones whose careers he held in his hands, or failing that, taken his cancellation lumps rather than resort to murder. Olivia deserved so much better, but at least some correctly applied justice will be meted out in her name, thanks to Elsbeth.

But wait, how does very insistently volunteering to work on this particular case help Elsbeth accomplish her assignment of being an outside observer under the NYPD’s consent decree? Alex quips earlier in the episode that she has something to do with the police department, but nobody knows exactly what.” Well. The outside-observer business is technically true — we see Captain Wagner on the phone with Elsbeth’s DOJ handler, being reassured that she’ll grow on him and that he’ll definitely prefer her to the alternative observer he could send, Cary Agos — but we also see Elsbeth on the phone with her handler, being reminded that she’s also there to investigate Captain Wagner. He’s been accused of corruption, and the DOJ wants to get to the bottom of it. Stay focused, Tascioni!

• The cold open incorporates a perfect, cheeky homage to the opening credits of Sex and the City, as Elsbeth gets drenched by a passing vehicle splashing through a big puddle. Elsbeth is actually delighted by this New York welcome, immediately puts her foam Statue of Liberty crown back on her head, and gets splashed again.

• I can’t stop thinking about Elsbeth’s mitten garters. They attach her mittens to the sleeves of her winter coats while simultaneously providing a disarming, flappy movement of the mittens, as well as the suggestion that she’s the kind of person who definitely would lose her mittens if they weren’t attached to her coat sleeves with mitten garters. Note to self: Acquire mitten garters for winter 2025.

• Elsbeth’s use of a very pretty floral evidence folder may or may not be an allusion to Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, another easy-to-underestimate lawyer. I choose to interpret it as Elsbeth’s version of the pink, scented paper Elle uses for her résumé, which she notes “gives it a little something extra.”

• An amusing bookend to the Sex and the City moment comes in the final scene, where the Lincoln Center fountain erupts into its bit splashy celebratory thing, which is not unlike the moment in Clueless where Cher realizes that she is majorly, totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh. Wagner immediately applies a sarcastic needle to Elsbeth’s metaphorical balloon of delight: “Yeah, we did that just for you.”

First appeared on www.vulture.com

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