At first blush, HBO’s new series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is an exercise in naiveté: It’s set in modern Botswana, but with its lush, color-saturated scenery, easy-going characters and airy, all’s-well-that-ends-well approach, it feels like a throwback to a mythical Africa, a kinder, gentler Africa that has little to do with the realities that we see played out all too often on the evening news.
But don’t sleep on this seven-episode series, which debuts with a two-hour pilot Sunday night. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is no lightweight, Africanized Murder She Wrote. Simmering underneath its sunny vibe are hints of life’s cloudy side: poverty, domestic abuse and children left parentless and homeless by the scourge of AIDS. This is a show that, unlike, say, the relentlessly harsh and cynical The Wire or Sopranos, acknowledges the dark side, but defiantly decides to embrace the light instead. It’s a delicate balancing act, but somehow, it works, and it works well.
Based on the best-selling mystery series by Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency follows the life of one Mma Precious Ramotswe, a quick-witted divorcée who decides to start her own detective agency—the first and only “Ladies’ Detective Agency” in Botswana—after her beloved father dies and leaves her 150 cattle. There are lots of shady characters out to capitalize in Precious’ sudden windfall—including her sexy, trumpet-playing ex-husband—but Mma Ramotswe has too much earthy common sense to be swayed by such silliness. Not that she doesn’t still doesn’t pine for the ex. Late at night, when no one’s looking, she puts his records on the turntable.
Starring Grammy-winner Jill Scott in the title role and directed by the late, great Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), the series blends gentle comedy with even gentler mysteries: There are no glitzy guns and fantabulous high-speed cases, no convoluted conspiracies straight outta Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Rather, the cases that Detective Ramotswe solves are of the more quotidian variety: a philandering husband gone missing, an unhappy dog who’s taken off for happier pastures, an extraction-happy dentist with two distinctly different personalities.
The series is filmed in Botswana, one of Africa’s wealthiest nations, and it is gorgeous to look at and listen to, from the rubbernecked giraffes fighting in the bush to the soaring soundtrack featuring local musicians. It boasts a stellar cast: Anika Noni Rose provides comic foil as Precious’ primly proper secretary. British-born actor Lucian Msamati serves up shy and sweet stability as Precious’ would-be suitor, while Idris Elba, in a cameo, adds a sinister presence as a local gangster who’s none too fond of kids. But the show belongs to Scott, who, as the bush-tea-drinking lady detective with the “traditional build,” is quite simply, fabulous.
It’ll be interesting to see how HBO viewers, used to a steady diet of fairly misanthropic fare, take to the sweeter flavors of the series. It’s a gamble, but one that its big-name producers—the late Sydney Pollack, the BBC and the Weinstein brothers—were clearly willing to take. We’re glad that they did. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is definitely sweet. But it’s got enough of a savory edge to keep us watching.
Read what other critics are saying about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency:
NEW YORK TIMES: Unusual Sleuth, Unusual Setting
LONDON TELEGRAPH: After giving it a slating last year, John Preston admits he's changed his mind about The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in this week's television review.
SLATE: Just Look Away
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.