‘Elsbeth’ Never Catches a Murderer Without Fantastic Makeup

Make-up design doesn’t always mean prosthetics or extremes — that’s why the Emmy Awards smartly single out contemporary make-up design as its own category. But too often, those more immediately arresting designs are the ones that get all the attention. Not anymore. Join IndieWire in celebrating the make-up artists creating subtle, character-specific work for contemporary characters.

Elsbeth Tascioni has been around for three series now. Carrie Preston introduced the most upbeat litigator of all time with the finesse of a drunken master on “The Good Wife” (winning an Emmy Award for her guest appearance) and reprised the role on the spinoff series “The Good Fight.” Now, the character gets her own CBS series with “Elsbeth,” from “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight” creators Michelle King and Robert King, in which her defense attorney acts as an oddball crime solver while acting as a legal observer for an NYPD consent decree. Elsbeth now gets whole episodes to revel in her uncanny ability to entrap her adversaries in a web that emerges out of one of her gigantic colored totes at the moment they least expect. Part of the brightness and part of the fun of a howcatchem is embedded in the show’s approach to makeup, too.

More from IndieWire

The “howcatchem” element is important. “Elsbeth” isn’t an anthology series, but it is anchored by (pun intended) a murderer’s row of guest stars we see commit the foul deeds that Ms. Tascioni then must solve. From Jane Krakowski to Keegan-Michael Key, Retta, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Blair Underwood, makeup department head Ande Yung doesn’t need to leave clues about whether the guest characters are guilty or not but gets to do something even more fun: tip the scales for how the audience feels about them.

Yung told IndieWire that some of the creative conversations about the makeup designs on the show revolve around the crucial first impressions Elsbeth and the audience make. “When you instantly see that character, what is your judgment going to be? Do we want the audience to get the character right away or do we want them second-guessing themselves? Maybe he’s good. Maybe he’s bad. I can’t tell. That’s how you start breaking those decisions down,” Yung said.

For example, Episode 2’s brutal real estate broker, played by Krakowski, has the kind of glow to her skin that’s designed to match her cream coat and eyeliner that accentuates her tastefully expensive purses. Yung helps transform her into a villain whose desire for power (over a building’s co-op board) is palpable, exactly the kind of posh New Yorker it’s a joy to hate.

The makeup on Elsbeth isn’t ever too out there — with perhaps a few exceptions later in the season — but it can also be an invisible weapon that gives the characters the mask they use to try to fool Elsbeth and the audience. “Makeup is not a dictatorship. It’s a democracy,” Yung said. “There are many ways to do a makeup that will work and that will look right on camera. But what is going to help the actor get into that mood and feel the character the most?”

For Elsbeth and the characters at the core of the show, Yung wants to leave room for them to evolve. With Elsbeth and her somewhat partner, Officer Kayla Blake (Carra Patterson), Yung’s goal was to keep them both fairly clean and fresh but not nearly as glammed up as some of the perps — so that the moments where we see their personal lives have more impact.

“Something Blue” – Elsbeth suspects foul play after a posh country club wedding meticulously planned by an esteemed, but shady, financial advisor, Ashton Hayes (Keegan-Michael Key), ends in the golf cart death of the hapless groom. Also, Elsbeth plans a housewarming party with some old friends, on ELSBETH, Thursday, May 2 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network, and streaming on Paramount+ (live and on-demand for Paramount+ with SHOWTIME subscribers, or on-demand for Paramount+ Essential subscribers the day after the episode airs)*.  Pictured (L-R):  Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni and Carra Patterson as Kaya Blanke   Photo: Michael Parmelee/CBS ©2024 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

“There are moments in the show as we go along where [we see Elsbeth] in her personal life and that’s where we’re able to do a little bit more, add a little bit more pop, and show that other side of her character,” Yung said. “And I wanted to bring [Kayla] down in terms of how much makeup she has playing a cop. That gives us someplace to go if, say, she’s going to be promoted to detective, because detectives are allowed to wear more.”

With Kayla especially, Yung has already crafted a strong visual contrast between her work look and personal life in a way the audience senses but might not put their finger on. “When she is outside of work, it’s nice to give [Kayla] a little pop. It’s nice to give her that red lip. It’s nice to give her some eyeliner and some lashes. She’s someone that Elsbeth could be friends with and we wanted to show that,” Yung said. “We wanted to show where that relationship beyond work can lead us to and how that relationship can happen.”

Part of the pleasure of a good series is how longstanding character relationships develop over time, but the particular joy of “Elsbeth” is that Yung and her team balance those more subtle storytelling adjustments with making characters look so fabulous they could get away with murder — even though they don’t.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.