TELEVISION: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: And Now For Something Completely Different!

I suppose that, outside of the show’s quality, there are three unusual things about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is that it is a show whole family can enjoy – and it’s on HBO [Sundays, 8/7C]; it is shot in Botswana, Africa, with a completely black cast, and it is one of the most physically beautiful shows on television. It is based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith.

Precious & Grace

Precious Ramotswe [Jill Scott] is a “cheerful woman of traditional build” [as McCall smith has descrivbed her] who inherits one hundred and eighty cows from her father – and sells them to buy a small house in the country’s capitol city, and set up a detective agency. Although she is a cheerful woman, there is hint of sadness about Precious that harkens back to her marriage to an abusive musician. It is this part of her that is able to relate to the pain of a schoolteacher whose son has vanished.

Precious sets up shop in a defunct post office – which leads to an awkward encounter in the first act. It’s a small thing, but it gives us a deeper understanding of her character’s generosity of spirit. She also acquires a secretary, Grace Makutsi [Anika Noni Rose], who is as ramrod stiff and uptight as Precious is round and relaxed.

In the two-hour premiere, we learn about Precious’ life prior to moving to the city. Her life unfolds in a leisurely manner, shot against some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. If you’re looking for fast-paced and/or glib, you won’t find it here. Instead, even the move to the big city and the acquisition and resolution cases [five in the premiere] are developed in an almost stately procession of events.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is not Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or Hammett’s Sam Spade. If they are hard-boiled, then Precious Ramotswe is most definitely soft-boiled, or maybe gently poached. The series is about character – hers, and her country’s. The various mysteries that are solved are there to show us that life requires character. They are handled in a manner that, at time, seems incidental to making [and being] friends; chatting over “bush tea,” and enjoying life – and when two of them overlap, it feels as natural.

Botswana is one of the few prosperous African nations – and one of the most beautiful. It is exactly the kind of place you might to find a curiosity like a ladies’ detective agency. Directed by Anthony Minghella [his last work], from a script he co-wrote [with Richard Curtis], The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is unique. Unless you’ve read McCall Smith’s books, you have never seen anything like it. It is different in many ways – all of them good.

Final Grade: A