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‘Elsbeth,’ featuring Carrie Preston’s delightful return, is latest procedural to join CBS lineup

Robert Lloyd – Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The initials CBS evidently stand for Crime Busting Shows, which — but for a few situation comedies and “Survivor” — currently dominate the network’s lineup: “FBI,” “FBI: International,” “FBI: Most Wanted,” “FBI True,” “S.W.A.T.,” “CSI: Vegas,” “NCIS,” “NCIS: Hawai’i,” “Blue Bloods,” “The Equalizer,” the comic legal drama “So Help Me Todd” and “Fire Country,” which has a criminal-justice element.

Two new series join the lineup. “Elsbeth,” a spinoff from “The Good Wife” and its sequel “The Good Fight” that premieres this week before taking some time off, is built around Carrie Preston’s quirky defense attorney Elsbeth Tascioni. “Tracker,” which debuted after the Super Bowl and airs Sundays, features Justin Hartley as a “rewardist” who makes his living finding missing people and things. Both belong to that classic class of episodic mysteries that foreground the character of the professional or amateur detective and bring every case to a conclusion by the end of an episode — though as contemporary series they include long arcs as well.

A mixture of childlike enthusiasm, deceptive naivete and killer instincts, Elsbeth was only a recurring character on the “Wife” and “Fight,” but she left a big impression. (Preston won a 2013 Emmy as guest actress in a drama series.) Created by Robert and Michelle King, “The Good Wife” (also on CBS) was one of those pre-streaming shows that demonstrated just how smart, sophisticated, subtle, sly and wickedly funny a network series could be, and they have imported those qualities into the more overtly comical, completely delightful “Elsbeth.”

The show transfers its title character from Chicago to New York, where, now working for the U.S. Department of Justice, she has been assigned to monitor the NYPD, or some portion of it, in accordance with a consent decree stemming from a spate of wrongful arrests. The police are not happy to have her, but she is overjoyed to be there, having traded the job of defending people she sometimes knew were guilty for “finding the truth.” The always welcome Wendell Pierce plays Capt. C.W. Wagner, who suffers her presence; Carra Patterson is Officer Kaya Blanke, whom he assigns to watch the watcher.

Structurally, the series is “Columbo,” where we see a murder committed at the top, after which the star, sizing up the situation in an instant, goes on to build the case and set a trap. And like Peter Falk‘s immortal gumshoe, Elsbeth — who will insert herself unbidden into an investigation — asks a lot of questions, some merely out of curiosity. She’s a big personality, chatty, colorfully dressed, a ray of sunshine, easily distracted, insanely friendly; she offers a killer a cookie even as he’s being packed off to the pokey. And because she’s a kook, both cops and killers can underestimate her.

“You’re smarter than you seem but a bit of a weirdo,” a detective tells her.

“Smarter than I seem,” she replies. “I got that on a report card once.”

Along with Fox’s “Alert: Missing Persons Unit” and NBC’s “Found,” “Tracker” is the third network series now running with a missing persons theme. The difference here is that Colton Shaw (Hartley) is in it for the money — not that he doesn’t care some, but this is one of the few such shows where you see the detective get paid — and works more or less alone. With his truck and sweet Airstream trailer, he’ll go anywhere in the United States that British Columbia can stand in for, echoing old shows like “Route 66” (and a new one like “Poker Face“) where each week the stars find themselves in a new place, with new people, involved in new people’s problems. But he can’t run away from his past, in the form of an estranged but suddenly emerging brother, who may have killed their father, a berserk Berkeley professor who took his family off the grid and taught them the survival skills adult Colton finds super handy.

Light relief is provided by Velma (Abby McEnany, “Work in Progress”), a Scooby-Doo nod undoubtedly, and Teddi (Robin Weigert), a couple who run Shaw’s business. With unavoidable tech genius Bobby (Eric Graise), they dig up whatever intel Colton needs with TV’s customary ridiculous speed. Sassy, sexy lawyer Reenie (Fiona Rene) gives him guff but bails him out. And because Hartley is a good-looking dude, there’ll be some random flirtations, but nothing serious because he’s a rambling guy.

The stories can be predictable, which is in itself predictable, or a little silly, not unusual among episodic procedurals, and perfectly acceptable. What’s worth turning up for is Hartley, who as Colton projects a calming, unruffled presence; he’s sensitive but not sentimental, impervious to pressure, a human lie detector. He oozes capability, of the mental and physical sorts, and though he has a tragic backstory he doesn’t seem particularly marked by it, as much as other characters might want to psychologize him. (Possibly, probably, feelings will grow heavier later in the year.) He knows no fear, and one knows with certainty he’ll disarm his opponents, with quick moves or charm or common sense. And who doesn’t need a little certainty nowadays?

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©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content 

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