'It's the anti-grit show': How CBS and the Kings landed a TV hit with 'Elsbeth'

?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia times brightspot.s3.amazonaws.com%2Fb0%2Fb5%2Fb5b7a18c44c9b10f55f2934774b5%2Fenvep 060724

In this week’s episode of The Envelope video podcast, “Lessons in Chemistry” star Aja Naomi King opens up about overcoming her fears about launching a career as an actor and Michelle King and Jonathan Tolins take us inside their popular new procedural, “Elsbeth.”

Yvonne Villarreal: Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of The Envelope podcast. I’m one of your hosts, Yvonne Villarreal.

Shawn Finnie: Shawn Finnie.

Mark Olsen And I’m Mark Olsen.

Villarreal: We’ve got another great episode with two incredible interviews. Shawn, why don’t you tell us who you spoke with?

Finnie: I spoke with the multitalented Aja Naomi King. We really, really know her from “How to Get Away With Murder,” but she’s starring in “Lessons and Chemistry” opposite Brie Larson. Have you ever seen the show yet?

Villarreal: Yes.

Finnie: To me, it’s a show about dreams and identity. It follows Elizabeth Zott, who is Brie Larson’s character, who has dreams and aspirations to be a scientist, but society is basically saying, “You don’t belong here as a woman.” And it just follows an interesting time in our American culture in the 1950s, ‘60s. And Aja’s character, to me, is so interesting because she has dreams of her own, but she’s also kind of thrust into protecting her community and she forms this relationship with Elizabeth. … We talked about her upbringing, and honestly, we talked about this too, Mark, what it actually takes to do this job [of] acting. And she speaks very candidly about her upbringing and her mom and her relationship with how [her parents] really believed in her and how that kept her [on track] in moments when she wasn’t getting the gig. So we had a really a really good conversation.

Villarreal: I also like that her character in the book is different than the one we see on screen.

Finnie: We spoke about that too, which is interesting. Her character in the book did not look the same as Aja Naomi King and that was very intentional. … It was a decision that they made, and they really expanded upon her character too, which we got to see in her playing Harriet Sloane. What about you?

Villarreal: I spoke with the creative minds behind “Elsbeth,” which is this new procedural on CBS, and it sort of takes a page from “Columbo.” So this is a show from Michelle and Robert King, who were the duo behind “The Good Wife” and The Good Fight.” And this takes one of the characters from those shows and sort of launches her in New York. But they’re not really calling it a spinoff because the tone is different, it’s more comedic and it’s like not as serialized. So we talk a little about that. It centers on Elsbeth Tascioni, who in “The Good Fight” and “The Good Wife” is this lawyer, but now that she’s in New York, she’s sort of taking on a more detective role as she sort of keeps her eye on the NYPD and their investigations, and she’s sort of seeing, like, are they doing things right? But she’s also keeping tabs on the captain of the police squad. So it’s very interesting. I spoke with Michelle, but also showrunner Jonathan Tolins about giving [Elsbeth] this different backdrop. So it was fun.

Olsen: Well, that sounds really great, and we’ll get to that in just a few minutes. But first we have Shawn’s interview with Aja Naomi King.

Shawn Finnie: Welcome back to The Envelope. My name is Shawn Finnie and today I am sitting with the force that is Aja Naomi King. We are talking about all things Miss Harriet Sloane in “Lessons in Chemistry.” …

Powerful performance, which we are going to get into. But first, because I really believe who we are really impacts what we do and why, so I’m going to go back to a little place called Walnut.

Aja Naomi King: Walnut. Walnut, California.

Finnie: To little Aja with no cellphone, when all you had was your imagination and how that led you to Yale and gave you this, this idea and courage about acting.

King: So for me to actually do that, I have to take it back even further. I’ve got to take it back to my mother, Teresa Moore King, who grew up in New York. And all she wanted to do was create. While growing up in the ‘50s, ‘60s [in] New York, her and her sisters [were] making their own clothes, renting out clubs and putting on fashion shows and charging people tickets to do this. … So, Teresa, the foundation of everything that I am, she continues to inspire me just with her joy of life. And so being raised by that kind of woman, who only ever saw possibility, that’s where it began for me. And it’s funny because even when you have parents like mine who just — I be like, “I want to run track and field. I want to be a cheerleader. I want to be in an honors program,” they were just like, “All right, go ahead and do it. We worked this hard to get this far so that whatever thought popped into your mind, you could just go and do it and not think about it twice.” But of course, as you grow older, the world — society — tries to teach you something else and make you feel like those things aren’t as graspable. That that is a flight of fancy. And it really has been my parents and their belief in me that allowed me to even begin to pursue this. So little Aja could have all these dreams because I had the backup. I had my army of ancestors just saying, “Go on ahead. We won’t let anything get in your way.”

That’s where I began. Because when I think about my mom in New York doing all this stuff —

Finnie: At that time.

King: At that time, right? And then she came out to L.A. and was like, “Oh, I can conquer this. I can do this here too.” And so her just having that strength and passion and vision and endowing me and my little sisters with that, that became the baseline for our lives. But then, you know, you go to school and you meet other kids and you see how difficult things can be. Especially when you don’t believe in yourself. Especially when you don’t have anyone telling you that you should believe in yourself, you know? And so then the idea of doing this was like —

Finnie: That’s for somebody else.

King: Or the version of this that I could do would never look like this. Like, I won’t be Angela [Bassett]. There’s only one her. … Still is only one. Let it be known. That played a role too. We knew who these incredibly talented Black women, these powerful forces of nature, we knew who they were. But for us growing up, they weren’t totally mainstream.

Finnie: They were ours.

King: They were ours, and that was so special to have that. But it became a limiting idea of what was possible, and now I think they have been given so much, but at that time, they should have been given so much more. So it was hard to enter into this with the idea of like, “So then what is it going to look like for me? Because I don’t think I can get to where they like, and they already deserve so much more than what they’re getting.”

But then I guess I had my come-to-Jesus moment. The thing that I was trying to do, the, the person I was trying to become, I was failing at, because it wasn’t truly in my spirit to be that. I was trying to be a doctor. And I mean, when I tell you I get sick of the sight of blood. I mean, I love people. But I don’t want to bandage you up. I don’t want to see you hurt.

Finnie: But there’s also, like, a perceived idea of society’s version of success and what success is. So you even probably pursuing that was like, “This is successful.”

King: Let me tell you something. It’s not only the perceived idea of what success is, it is also the idea of what safety is. … It’s like, now you add value. This will keep you safe. This will keep your family safe. You will have somewhere to go. You can provide. You will be necessary. So there was such a safety in that idea. And then going outside of the bounds of that safety, I basically had a nervous breakdown in high school because I felt like I was defying so much within myself, that safety that I desired, by going out on a limb and and pursuing acting, pursuing a creative art. …

And it’s so funny because my parents, they never thought it was insane. They never said to me, “That’s crazy. Don’t do that.” It was all the oppressive, societal ideas that made me feel like, “That’s crazy, you can’t do that.” I just remember sobbing to my mom, like, “I can’t be a doctor. I can’t do this.”

Finnie: You probably feel like you’re letting them down.

King: I remember them holding me and just being like, “That’s OK. We want you to be happy. We didn’t do all this for you to struggle in some idea of what you’re supposed to be.” It blew my mind because I was looking at them like, “No, don’t you understand? You’re supposed to convince me I’m doing the wrong thing, guys. I’m going in the wrong direction.” … Also, they thought I was good at it. They saw success for me in this beyond what I could see for myself. Maybe that’s love, or parenting, but I hope I’m able to do the same thing for my child too.

Finnie: It’s freedom, it sounds like. Freedom to dream.

King: To believe so much in someone else that it grants them a freedom that they never thought that they could experience for themselves.

Finnie: That’s beautiful. You’ve mentioned her name already, but I know that when you got accepted to Yale, you got a phone call from a certain individual. I think a missed call, and then you heard the voicemail and you called her back. Tell us a little bit about that, because I think it’s important as we talk about powerful figures, even in your character in “Lessons in Chemistry.”

King: At this point I’ve done undergrad, I’ve gone to UC Santa Barbara, I’m still pursuing acting. I’m going to grad school. I’ve gotten accepted into Yale University’s MFA acting program. … And the Angela Bassett calls my cellphone.

Finnie: Because your mom’s friend knew her.

King: My mom had a friend who knew her. My mom didn’t ask for that. She was just telling her friend how excited she was for me. That friend got a message to Angela, got her my cellphone number. … I get a call on my cellphone from a private number.

Finnie: We don’t answer those. We don’t need those, because they’re calling and asking for something we don’t want to give.

King: Like, “I don’t know what this is.” Get a voicemail. Listen to the voicemail. And I lost my mind. Because Angela Bassett left me a message saying, “Hey, this is Angela Bassett” — which already was like, “What?” — “I heard you got into Yale. Just giving you a call. I’ll call you back later.”

Finnie: Casually.

King: And then what do you do?

Finnie: You scream. Look at it. Play it back.

King: Hold your phone and stand there staring at like, “Angela says she’s going to call back, so I’m just going to stand here and wait for her to call back. … We had not met at that time, and she called me back and we talked on the phone probably for like 30, 45 minutes. She told me about her experience of that school, her experience of being a Black woman in this industry, and how you have to fight for yourself and believe in your vision of yourself and what you deserve. For me, actually, the best piece of advice that she gave me on this call was, while at school especially, to just be open, to be open to all the direction. To play, to truly play and be open and explore it and see where it takes you. To go on that journey, and then decide if that feels right and to make an acting choice based off of that. And that has kind of been my guiding light in terms of how I work. To believe in openness and collaboration and play and to fully do the choice and to see where it takes you, to explore that, and then let it go if it’s not going to serve the character. Allow yourself to go in a different direction, allow yourself to make a mistake, allow yourself to fail. It was just really beautiful, but I guess kind of the most beautiful thing she taught me in that moment of her taking the time to call me back, to share this advice with the perfect stranger, is the art and the generosity of paying that forward, of giving that to another up-and-coming artist, to be willing to have that conversation, to spend that time to engage. It’s something that like, regardless of where that person ends up on their journey, that they will cherish forever because you took the time to say, “Talking to you means something to me. I think you are valuable and important, and I want to share what I have learned with you.” And we have to pass that on. We can’t gatekeep these gifts.

Finnie: And you’re important now. Because I think what’s the interesting part is sometimes the importance isn’t until the accolades or the awards or the nominations. And it’s like, “Oh no, you’re important as a student. And be a student and play and learn and listen and love and fall in love with that and then apply it.”

I’m curious now how this goes into “Lessons in Chemistry.” … What now is a “hell yes”? When you are being presented an opportunity to be a part of a project, what is the “hell yes” factor, and what was the “hell yes” about this script for you?

King: In general, the “hell yes” factor is like the people that you get to work with. That’s where I’m like, “Oh, I really want that experience.” Like, you get to work with Viola Davis.

Finnie: Yes, please.

King: Hell yes! Like, “How much? I’ll pay you.” And with this, it’s like, “You get to work with Brie Larson.” I love her. Hell yes. I just love that my life has taken me, that my career has taken me, in this direction to work with such incredibly generous artists who give so much and are just so kind and loving on- and off-set. And then for this script specifically, when I first read it — I got the script and I was like, “Should I read the book first? Should I read the script first?” And I decided to read the book first to have a framework. I sobbed through this book. I thought the book was so beautiful. And then I read the script and I was like, “Wow, they really did it.”

So then in having conversations with our showrunner Lee Eisenberg, what I had originally sort of joined the project to do was going to undergo some changes. And then I was like, “What does that mean?” I like what we had planned, so what are we gonna do? And then he proceeded to tell me this whole beautiful story of what he wanted to do with my character. And it was kind of taking over. Because originally I wasn’t really Harriet from the book. I was something else. And then he was like, “We want you to be Harriet.”

What he pitched to me in that moment I found so powerful and so inspiring. You know when you get that thing when you feel like a little kid and you’re like, “I want to do that”? That’s how I felt. Like, we’re going to dive into Black motherhood? And being a wife? And her aspirations beyond those two things in a time period [when] that was what was meant to define you, and she’s going to be defying all of that? And she’s an activist?

Finnie: She’s a superhero.

King: Basically a superhero. And then to dive into the story of this neighborhood. There was a part of me that was like, “He could just be saying this,” because a lot of the time people can be full of s—. And I was just like, “Can I trust this man?” …

I got script after script after script and they just weaved together this beautiful story of Harriet’s life, showing the tension that was being built with my husband, showing the dichotomy between Elizabeth’s experience of life and Harriet’s experience of struggle. And then a lot of it too was nonverbal. Seeing the moments where they just stay with me as I’m processing how I feel, I was so blown away. I felt like, “Oh, so this man overpromised and delivered.”

I was so grateful that it wasn’t just some side character that is only used so that we can learn more about the main character. No, we stay with her. We live with her. We understand her deeply. We see what she’s fighting for and we see the effect of that not only on her husband, but on her children —

Finnie: And her relationship with Elizabeth and what she taught her.

King: And that being called into question and them having to earn that friendship. And we had discussions about that because that was so fundamental for us in building this community, that it was all earned, that you got to see it all so that you know we earned it. You could believe these two would be in each other’s lives because they have a transparency with one another.

Finnie: And an accountability. And an honesty. And a responsibility, I think, once you dove deeper. There was a scene specifically where Harriet was basically saying, like, “Look, I need you to show up for me. If you’re really about this life, then you should show up for me.” And Elizabeth’s like, “I’ll make it up to you. I’ll see you another time.” And it’s like, “This is not my birthday.”

King: This is not about me.

Finnie: This is really about the collective we, regardless of what you look like and I look like.

King: This is the neighborhood that we live in. Yeah. And that was the thing that I loved about Harriet. She’s not just trying to save this neighborhood for herself or the people that look like her. Elizabeth lives there, too. And that’s what I found so profound about it. I love that one so much because she calls into question too Elizabeth’s audience. It’s like, “Who was this for?” and “Do you understand the impact that you are able to make and what is the point if there’s no deeper purpose? You know, it’s like you can’t pitch all this stuff about how you want equality and femininity —”

Finnie: And it only applies to some.

King: Exactly.

Finnie: I feel like the underlayer for me watching it is the dreams and identity. … I’m curious, for you, what that intersectionality of Harriet’s character is as it relates to dreams and identity?

King: That’s what I love that we got to really see with this show. Because she’s growing up in a time where she’s supposed to be content with the identity of wife and mother.

Finnie: Because that was success at the time.

King: That was success. That was safety. And so going beyond those bounds, trying to work, trying to be further educated, aspiring to all of that — I loved how her idea of safety and her husband’s idea of safety were two different ideas. His was, “You keep your head down, you do your work, you earn your money, your kids get to go to a nice school and be safe and live.” While her idea of safety is, “We have to change the society within where we live, or else our children will never be safe. They will never have a future. They will never get to live.” And getting to see them have that conversation, to me, was really essential in understanding what Black parenthood is now, today, and has continued to be. And so her identity and her dreams, from the outside, are in conflict with one another because she dreams for so much more. But for herself, her dreams are not separate from her identity because that is who she is. She is someone who takes action. She was always going to take action regardless of whatever box someone wanted to put her in. She was always going to explore a way out of that and try to expand people’s ideas and possibilities of not only what they could be, but what she herself could be.

I think too, and I won’t limit it to just motherhood, but I do think there is something about motherhood that expands you in such a way because you know if you’re not living life to the fullest, how can your children ever begin to think that they could do that? If you can’t expand your own bounds of your mind to what is possible for yourself, then our children remain in these tiny, limited boxes.

Finnie: Perpetuating an idea.

King: Because society creeps in no matter what you do. My parents tried to tell me I had endless possibilities, but society crept in because I would watch TV or I’d look at a magazine and I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t look like these people so this is not for me.” So now imagine being in a time —

Finnie: There were laws put in place that said you cannot be —

King: Covenants that said you cannot live here. You cannot buy anything here. A period in a time where a woman couldn’t have a credit card unless a man signed off on it. You didn’t own your own being.

Finnie: Had no agency.

King: You had no agency. But imagine growing up in a time where you had no agency and having the audacity to think, “I should.”

Finnie: And can and will.

King: That I deserve to have agency and I will fight to bend your mind to believe it too. And that is who Harriet is.

Finnie: I know that you also had cultural consultant on set.

King: Dr. Shamell Bell.

Finnie: I can only imagine learning about the real Sugar Hill. And the thing about it is, you had a Hattie McDaniel, you had a Ray Charles.

King: This was an affluent Black neighborhood that was destroyed by the highway commission because they had a choice to put it through Sorority Row near USC or to uproot all these families using eminent domain — we all know how that goes down — just displacing that entire community. It’s not OK to do it anywhere, but to just know that there was so much art and creativity, these salons happening, this cultural epicenter of this joyful life just being broken up.

Finnie: For a highway.

King: It’s devastating. And I didn’t even know about it. I had no idea… that it occurred, right there in downtown.

Finnie: How did that impact you? … How did this make you a different person, this character? What lives with you from Harriet?

King: It’s one of those things where you’re like, “OK, not surprised. Like, of course. What’s new.” But I love Harriet’s vision. I really do. My son is still young, but my son was very young when I was filming this and it is such a fine line we walk as parents, trying to give so much to your children and still have ownership over yourself. Harriet reminded me that I still owe something to myself in my own moments of peace and joy that are separate from me as a mother. And it is so important to gift myself that. To understand that the idea of love is not wasting all that you have to give it to someone else so that there’s nothing left for you, but that love should be, “I am taking such great care of myself that you can learn and benefit from and that you can understand that when you love someone, it is not to destroy yourself.

Finnie: In pursuit of loving them.

King: Exactly. Because I can’t give my child the idea, and I can’t parent or or exist as a human being within the idea, that I only did a good job of loving you if I had nothing left for me. That’s horrible and not sustainable. And I also would not want that for my son. I would not want him to love in that way, because I don’t think that engenders respect or boundaries, which are really important things, which are essential to say, “I matter. I still matter too. I will love you, but I will also love myself.”

Finnie: I feel like “Lessons in Chemistry” is a metaphor for life. So if it wasn’t “Lessons in Chemistry” but “Lessons in _____,” how would you rename the title?

King: “Lessons in Audacity.”

Finnie: I love that.

King: Because there’s a daring to these people in this story — a boldness and a daring to at least try to live the way you want to live, which you have to do with an unparalleled audaciousness.

Yvonne Villarreal: Jon and Michelle, thanks so much for joining me.

Michelle King: Absolutely.

Villarreal: Congratulations are in order. You guys were renewed for Season 2 of “Elsbeth.” Michelle, you’ve been in this position many times, but does getting a show renewal in today’s landscape feel any more challenging or harder to predict than even five years ago?

King: Yes. It just feels maybe a little bit more special because there are fewer shows, there are fewer spaces. So yeah, it was a thrill.

Jonathan Tolins: Mostly it was a feeling of relief because so much of the first season, you just are constantly thinking of how do we get it beyond the first season? How do we earn that pickup? And so to get there, it’s like now it’s going to be easy.

Villarreal: Well, let’s talk about the genesis of this project. Michelle, you and Robert King, your husband and writing partner, were sort of looking for something that was less laborious to watch during the pandemic, right? And you were sort of like, can we get something like “Columbo”? Talk to me about how it sort of then came to fruition.

King: We very much enjoyed “Columbo” during the pandemic, and we love Carrie Preston. We love Elsbeth Tascioni. They were just kind of a natural fit. And the idea — we weren’t looking to continue “The Good Wife” universe, per se, and we actually didn’t think we were continuing [it]. It was just, “Oh, that character fits so beautifully in that genre. Wouldn’t that be fun?” So that that was the road.

Villarreal: Was a just a natural thing because she [Elsbeth] had been conceived as a Columbo-like character? There was no consideration of ‘Let’s start with a new character’?

King: No, no, never crossed our mind. No, we absolutely knew: Oh, she’s our gal for this show.

Villarreal: So, how do you think about ‘how do we build this out into something that is “Columbo”-esque?’

King: Just starting with the: “OK, what is her world? She isn’t a detective. She’s a lawyer. So what is a logical way to get her involved with the police department? And then we like the idea of bringing her to New York, because, first of all, fish out of water. She’s a Midwesterner. [We] get to see New York, and fancy New York, through her eyes, which was very appealing to us.

[Soundbite from “Elsbeth.”]

Carrie Preston (as Elsbeth Tascioni): You know, I’m new to the city. Can you help me find an apartment?
Jane Krakoswi (as Joann, a real estate agent): Oh, I’d be glad to refer you to the appropriate broker.
Preston (as Elsbeth): I think I want you. Can I —
Krakowski (as Joann): Hmm, my plate is pretty full.
Preston (as Elsbeth): I’m more like a side dish. Do you have a card?
Krawkowski (as Joann): Oh … I rushed here from the office and forgot my bag.
Preston (as Elsbeth): Too bad.

Villarreal: Jon, you’ve worked on “The Good Fight” before. What do you get with Elsbeth at the center of a series that different than Alicia [Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies] in “The Good Wife” or [Diane Lockhart, played by] Christine Baranski in “The Good Fight”?

Tolins: Well, it’s a whole feeling. This is not a political show whereas “The Good Fight” very much was. It’s also not an issue-based show, although we find, as writers, ways to sort of put in things we find interesting and [that] comments on the world, as in the course of our cases and all that. This show is its own thing. It’s this sort of very funny, serious cop show. One of the things we learned early on was that it works best when we play it like a very straight CBS procedural, with this quirky character thrown in the middle of it, questioning everything. And I always say that I — this wasn’t the plan — but somehow I ended up in the perfect position to work on this show, because the last three TV shows I did before this were “The Good Fight,” “Schmigadoon!” and “East New York.” And if you put those three shows in a blender, that’s sort of how you end up with.

Villarreal: “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” open with these crystallizing moments for the main characters. But “Elsbeth” doesn’t have the same sort of personal or introspective launching point. We find that she’s there [in New York] as an impartial observer of the NYPD on their murder investigations. But we also later find out she’s actually gathering evidence on Wendell Pierce’s character, Capt. Wagner, in this police corruption investigation. How did you decide on that as the launching point? And do you see any character development for Elsbeth in this weekly case format?

King: We knew we were doing an episodic show, that was our intention, as opposed to something like “The Good Fight,” which was far more heavily serialized, and taking “Columbo” as a model. You don’t learn that much about Colombo. You don’t go home with Colombo. So we’re breaking the mold somewhat, but we’re breaking it gently. Jon and the writers are breaking it gently.

Tolins: You’re spending so much time with this character now, which is such a luxury because she’s so delightful. We slowly peel the onion as we go, and one of the things we found that’s very helpful is that what makes the show work, I think, well, is that each episode feels different because we pick a different slice of life, usually moneyed New York, and we dig into that and we build the case with that, the clues come out of the specifics of that world, which always make it a little bit juicier and a little bit more fun.

[Soundbite from “Elsbeth.”]

Retta (as elite matchmaker Margo Clarke): He was so upset, he wanted to talk in person. Excuse me. What are you doing?

Preston (as Elsbeth): Your rug is missing. See, there’s an outline where a rug used to be.

Retta (as Margo) You’re very observant.

Preston (as Elsbeth): Oh, no. Not really. I just, notice things that are odd.

Tolins: But we also use the specifics of that case as a way to find some new aspect of Elsbeth that we learn something about. So when she was in a case where it was a high-priced matchmaker, she starts talking about her romantic history. So we just try to find organic, natural ways to sort of learn a little bit more about her. And one of the nice things is that she’s in this sort of partnership with Kaya, Carra Patterson’s character. Kaya is our representative of trying to figure out this woman. So we’re excited to have more and more time to find out things about her.

Villarreal: Studios love remakes, reboots, franchises, and that comes with audience expectations. What do you enjoy about working with a known character? What is the sort of creative challenge or joy of that for both of you?

King: In terms of audience expectation of a character, the nice thing is, one doesn’t have to know the character from previous shows to enjoy this show. Studios test shows. And so they did the test and the folks in the focus group were asked if they they loved the show. They didn’t know the character.

Tolins: There were 19 [episodes] with Elsbeth in them on “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight.” And so there’s a voice that you can have in your head as a writer. And just so much of this is about just trying to listen to that sense of, does that feel right? And you have a lot more to go on when you have a character who’s had that many outings and you can hear her in your head and, just sort of follow that instinct.

Villarreal: Tell me what it was like in the “Good Fight” writers room when you knew that you were going to be having Elsbeth in an episode.

Tolins: It always came out of, well, who would be a fun lawyer for this? Is Carrie Preston available? That was always sort of the first question. And I have to say, I happened to be the writer of record on the last two episodes that Elsbeth appeared on, and I think that’s sort of how I ended up in this job, because I think Robert and Michelle liked the way I wrote her and thought of me when they started this. So, always do your best.

Villarreal: What is the trick to writing her? What can you have fun with in terms of dialogue and everything?

Tolins: Here’s the thing. They say, oh, she’s quirky — a lot of that comes from the [fact] that she will tell the truth about things. I think a lot of how you write her is you pay attention to every little thing in your own head that notices something odd or weird or contradictory, and you let the characters say it.

[Soundbite from “Elsbeth.”]

Preston (as Elsbeth): It’s just when the Russians assassinate someone, they’re trying to make a point, you know, to scare the next person who thinks of speaking out.

Blair Underwood (as tennis coach Cliff McGrath): Killing a tennis giant on the sport’s biggest stage is making a point.

Preston (as Elsbeth): Well, except for you, and a few people online, no one’s really suggesting them, and their people haven’t leaked anything to change that. So kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?

Tolins: Also, one of the great things about writing for Carrie Preston is that you can do that in a line, and you don’t have to put in parenthetical (a new thought). She will find every divergent path, which is so delightful.

Villarreal: Carrie talks a lot about how all of the pauses that are written in help her.

Tolins: The first time I heard her read through [the script], it was actually the first [episode] we filmed after the pilot, it was that, oh, it’s coming out of her mouth the way I had it in my head. So, I felt really confident that, “OK, she and I, we have a sort of mind meld about how this character thinks.” Again, so much of it is instinct and it’s so much of it is not [about] you decide how you’re going to do it. You just have to follow that sort of unconscious sense of who the character is.

Villarreal: Something that I love is just even how she enters the scene. She’ll just pop in from the side.

Tolins: That’s something that happened when Robert was directing the pilot.

King: Yeah, I was going to say that that came about with Robert directing the pilot.

Villarreal: Really? Okay.

King: That fun sideways [appearance]. And then suddenly it became a signature. That was found.

Villarreal: Is it then written into scripts now?

Tolins: Oh, yes. It’s funny, in the finale, I won’t give too much away, but Elsbeth’s being trained to walk on a runway in a fashion show. And this model, played by Laura Benanti, says, “You, stand up straighter, straighter!” And she [Elsbeth] says, “Sorry, I tend to lean into things.” So, yeah, we pay attention. And all the directors know that that’s something. And they always find new fun ways for her to pop into frame.

Villarreal: Well, Jon, I know during the strike you spent part of that time rewatching “Columbo” … or watching it for the first time?

Tolins: I had seen a bunch of them when I was a kid. And some of them, watching them again, I totally remembered exactly — like the Ruth Gordon one. I totally remembered. But yeah, I watched all of them.

Villarreal: Talk to me about what that did for you and what the note-taking was like. What were you looking for in terms of how they worked with clues or what kind of cases they were doing?

Tolins: What I tried to do is I paid attention to what I found I liked the best. When I felt like, oh, that’s a really good thing. The thing that makes it work the best is when, and this is a very TV thing to say, but it’s when you can play at home. I love it when the whole thing hinges on a clue that I should have seen. I had every opportunity to see that and I didn’t see it! And it’s that that’s really the fun. So we try to do that as often as we can.

Villarreal: How was it deciding what would be the case to launch in the pilot? What do you remember you and Robert discussing for that?

King: Well, we wanted to highlight that Elsbeth was an outsider. We wanted to find a world that was somewhat pretentious and specific to New York, and this idea of performance and someone who was cutting through performance just was very appetizing to us.

Tolins: The pilot brings up a question that sort of hangs over the entire character in series, which is when is she acting and when is she not? We don’t always decide, and Carrie doesn’t always decide. She plays everything real. But how much of it is naive and how much of it is absolutely calculated?

Villarreal: This season we’ve seen her sniff out a tennis player’s father killing the competitor, the Andy Cohen-like reality TV producer offing one of his starlets. What makes for a good case for Elsbeth? And how much are you thinking about New York as a backdrop to this?

Tolins: We think of New York all the time. I always say pay attention to Page Six every day and New York magazine. Basically what makes a good case is something that everyone in the writers room goes, “oh, yes!” This is something I learned from working with Robert and Michelle, that so much of doing this kind of show, or any show, is feeling the temperature in the writers room of when something is really hot and everyone’s excited because that’s when you know there’s something there.

Villarreal: I also know that you’re not big on violence. The use of a gun is maybe used once in the season.

Tolins: Once, the finale is the only time we use.

Villarreal: What challenge does that create? Or is it more creatively freeing to think outside the box?

Tollins: It forces us to to come up with something that’s a little bit more creative. I also just, I hate violence. It’s not my thing. And I don’t think a show starring Elsbeth Tascioni solving crimes is one where you want to see a lot of blood or that kind of anger. It just doesn’t feel right, tonally.

King: You’re so right. It’s the anti-grit show.

Villarreal: “Elsbeth” and “Poker Face,” another series that pays homage to “Columbo,” both show the audience who the culprit is at the beginning of of the episode. What do you enjoy about Solve This With Us versus the whodunit approach to the mystery series?

Tolins: I think the big difference — and I love “Poker Face” too — there are certain main differences that I feel, oh, we’re not doing the same thing, thank God. The big difference is there are always scenes where the audience knows something that Elsbeth doesn’t. You wouldn’t have that if you didn’t do the howdunnit format. And so really the real fun of watching an actor play a character who is lying, and we know for a fact they’re lying, is different. It’s a different kind of fun. Now, that said, we are breaking form sometimes, and sometimes we are not always playing it the same way. When I started, I thought, oh God, this is going to be so hard to keep coming up with these [cases] in a way that’s satisfying. You usually show the murder, but you don’t always show all the clues of how she’s going to [figure it out]. We try to dole out the information so there are twists and turns, but I kind of feel freed by it a little bit. I’ve learned that it’s sort of like working in the sonata form; you have a basic form that you can keep pushing at the edges of and try to find new ways to do it, but still come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Villarreal: Shows that are similar, at least on paper, are not uncommon in Hollywood. When in the development process did you hear about “Poker Face,” and how do you sort of not let that sort of infiltrate how you think about the show?

King: We certainly had the idea before we knew that that was a thing. I can’t remember at what point we saw the show. Here’s what I will say: Robert and I have never developed a show where there wasn’t a competing show. I no longer give it a minute’s thought because it is always the case and fine. So either we get on the air or we don’t.

Tolins: It’s a very different slice of life and world and Charlie [Natasha Lyonne’s character in “Poker Face”] is a very different character than Elsbeth. Also, they do something that is kind of wonderful, but I don’t think would work for us: the way they play with the timeline much more thoroughly than we ever do — usually because what they do is, usually, you see the whole crime and then you go back and you see how Charlie was actually there the whole time. I think that would be hard, first of all, with our time limitations and also being on network where it takes, I think, more concentration to follow than we can count on necessarily [being on] Thursday nights at 10 p.m. on CBS. Also, they have the device that Charlie is able to tell when someone’s lying, which we don’t have. So I felt those were different enough. The voice is very different.

King: And the world is very different.

Tolins: Yeah, the world is totally different. … Yeah. The world is totally different. Much more dust.

Villarreal: Both of you have experience working on network and then having shows on streaming. What did you enjoy about the thought of returning to network TV with a procedural like this?

King: We never were anti-network. I’ll tell you what I enjoy about having it on network, which is so many more people are seeing it and enjoying it and letting us know. And that’s terrific. That’s just the great fun of being able to reach a wider swath of folks rather than you know that they have to put down their $10.99 a month, whatever it is.

Villarreal: Jon, you’re in the position where you’re carrying out the vision set by Michelle and Robert. Were you hesitant about that or was that a nice challenge for you?

Tolins: Yes … tell me if I’m wrong [turns to King], but Robert and Michelle wrote the pilot, and everything you see in the pilot was there, but they’ve given me a lot of freedom beyond that to find it as we go. And then, of course, they see every story as we go; I don’t, I don’t feel hemmed in. I don’t have to think all the time, Will Robert and Michelle like this? I think we understand what the show is.

King: Absolutely.

Villarreal: What does a Robert or Michelle note look like?

Tolins: [laughs] I mean, they’re worried about tonnage. Like, do we have too much of — because, as we said, Elsbeth is a character that you can too much of. You have to always find just enough and just not too much. It’s more about that. It’s more about making sure we all feel like, yes, we’re on the right path.

Villarreal: Does that feel like a bigger challenge when the guest star each week is like the fourth character, but otherwise you’re you’ve got three main [characters], which is Capt. Wagner, Elsbeth, and Kaya. Kaya, right? I was gong to say Carra but that’s the actress‘s name who plays her.

King: We really did that wrong. Hired a Carrie and a Carra. And Carra plays Kaya. That was a terrible error.

Villarreal: But when you have basically three main characters and you want to make sure the dosage of Elsbeth is right, is that a challenge when it’s not like a bigger ensemble?

Tolins: I’ll tell you, the challenge for me was we have the demands of the procedural, and we’ve got three characters — wonderful actors — who we want to make sure we keep involved. [With] “Colombo,” you barely knew anybody else. Occasionally they would have Steven Gilborn as the medical examiner. So it’s been a challenge to find ways to make sure we were keeping our three [characters] interacting with each other and integral to the plot. I think we’ve managed to find a way to keep that investigation that Elsbeth been on about her investigation into Capt. Wagner — certainly online, everyone’s into that, more than I thought they would be.

Villarreal: What’s a crucial quality you’ve come to realize is necessary for a showrunner? And what did observing Robert and Michelle during [your time on “The Good Fight”] teach you?

Tolins: Unflappability and calm, I think, are the best thing I learned. I always remember times when it felt like things weren’t working. And I do this now because Robert always did this in the room. He would just state where we are and what we are trying to figure out at this moment. Nothing else matters. Or like suddenly an actor who you had been planning this whole episode around is unavailable. You do not get emotional about it. You go, OK, what are the options? And you just have to move forward. It’s a train on a track and you have hundreds of people waiting for the next script and emotion does not help you in this job.

King: You’re so right. The trick is always to fall forward. It’s not thinking there’s not going to be obstacles and you won’t stumble. It’s always, how do we fall forward? It’s funny, I hadn’t thought about this in years, but a friend was working with a basketball player on a different thing, and the basketball player didn’t show up. And I realized, oh, we had that happen to us on “The Good Wife.” You rewrite and suddenly there is no basketball player. It [becomes] their agent. Because you can’t spend your life getting upset about who shows up on set. If they don’t show up on set, you better figure out something else to film.

Tolins: And the audience doesn’t know what happened.

King: Right. Until I spilled it on the L.A. Times video podcast.

Tolins: This year, with Episode 5, which was the tennis episode, it was written by a wonderful writer, Eric Randall. And Eric was expecting a baby. And so I wanted to move his episode earlier so it wouldn’t conflict. And everyone agreed that was a good idea, but it meant we were shooting in a very cold time of year. So we had an arrangement with one place that would have been perfect. But then that perfect place said, “There’s a murder? No, you can’t shoot here.” And so we had to scramble and we had to make our own tennis court. Gail Barringer, who’s our line producer and co-executive producer — talk about unflappable. It was just like: What can we do? What can we do?

Villarreal: Let’s talk more about the guest stars. Because, as you said, sometimes the episodes change. Did you have a dream list going into this? How do you decide who works for whatever character or episode you’re trying to do? Because I imagine scheduling these very great guest stars is a challenge.

Tolins: I have to say, because of that, we don’t write to the performer, or at least we haven’t yet. We may be in a position now that the show is established, I’m hoping some people might say, “I really want to do an [episode of] ‘Elsbeth,’ this is when I’m free,” and then maybe we can do that. Although, I don’t trust it when they say that. We just really just write characters and then Findley Davidson, who is our casting director, and I and the writer of the episode, we just start the conversation and we make our lists and we just go.

Villarreal: We’ve obviously heard a lot about Elsbeth’s son this season, and he unintentionally gets into an entanglement with Capt. Wagner in terms of him sort of exerting his influence. Are we going to see Elsbeth’s son?

Tolins: Maybe. I mean, you never saw Mrs. Columbo until she got her own series. So, you know, watch out for Teddy Tascioni coming this fall! That came about because, when Robert and Michelle asked me to do this, I went and watched every episode Elsbeth ever appeared in. And I’ve been saying it’s the first episode, but it’s actually the second episode she appeared in on “The Good Wife,” where she mentions her son set her up with her computer. So we went back. We figured, OK, well, he was maybe like 10 years old then. So we figure he’s mid-20s now. And we just thought, well, she’s a mother. And what kind of kid would she have? What kind of mother would she be? And it’s opened up, actually, really lovely stuff for the character. But I don’t know what we’re going to do yet [with him].

Villarreal: I know we’re keeping the worlds separate, and this is very much not thought about as a spinoff, but we did hear a mention of Cary Agos [“The Good Wife” character played by Matt Czuchry]. Do you see a world eventually down the line where there might be these characters dropping in? Or it’s like a TBD at this point?

Tolins: You going to pay for them? I love that a lot of fans of TV shows think of characters as like crayons that you can just pick up and use. But we still have the sort of the demands of our show, the setting, which is the fact that we’re in New York. And just in terms of a budget of how much we can do in an episode, there are a lot of considerations. I would love to have those people visit. The problem is, so much of our budget goes to who’s the murderer? I don’t want to see Diane Lockhart kill someone. So I would love it if we can work it out down the line. But again, this is a show that it’s not really a spinoff, and it is set in New York. And I say, I’ve got friends in Chicago, I rarely see them.

Villarreal: We’re about a year since the writers’ strike went into effect. What are the shifts or changes since you’ve gotten back to work? Is it things like the budget? What feels especially different?

King: There is certainly an awareness of budget. Look, network television was always budget-conscious. It has become more budget-conscious.

Tolins: I say for me, it’s how many people I know who are out of work and how I wish I could hire them all.

Villarreal: Do you find that you’re thinking about streaming hours or algorithm in the ways that you were thinking about ratings? How does it sort of factor into your everyday process as a creative?

Tolins: Not at all for me.

King: I was going to say — I don’t know about you, Jon, but not at all for me.

Tolins: I barely have enough time to try to make the show good. That’s all you can do.

Villarreal: We know that the show’s renewed for Season 2. When are things going to pick back up in the writers room for you?

King: When do we wrap up here? [laughs]

Tolins: I think by the end of the month.

Villarreal: Does your notes app have cases you’re already thinking about or guest stars you hope to get for Season 2 cases?

Tolins: Certainly. But I mean, because we only had nine new episodes to do in Season 1, and we had a much longer list than nine. So there’s a bunch we’ll go back to and every once in a while something will happen and I’ll just go, oop, yeah. I’m always looking, always looking for fun ways to murder people.

Villarreal: Well, I’m very excited for the return of the series when it comes back next season. It’s been such a delight to watch. And thank you so much for joining me today.

Tolins: Thank you.

King: Good to see you.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top