Review: “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”

Let’s face it: For much of the viewing public, a detective might be needed to even find Botswana on a map. The small African nation doesn’t get much press, for the very reasons that the makers of HBO’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (airing Sundays beginning March 29) are excited their story is set there.

Relatively free from the strife that dominates the mainstream images of Africa — political corruption, civil war, poverty — Botswana enjoys a peace and tranquility that leave a distinct impression on those who encounter it. It certainly did with Alexander McCall Smith, the novelist who has just finished his 10th book chronicling the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, who opens up the country’s only female-run detective agency. Ramotswe mixes solid detecting skills with her homespun wisdom to help people solve the mysteries in their lives, including cheating husbands, family imposters and missing children.

The books have a devoted international following, and attracted the attention of Hollywood heavyweights Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa). The two-hour pilot for the TV series was written and directed by Minghella and produced by Pollack. In a sad turn of events, both men died last year before seeing their translation brought to a wide audience. But rest assured it captures the easygoing whimsy of the books, and delivers a masterstroke in casting R&B singer Jill Scott as its lead.

Scott brings a warmth and intelligence to the role that brings to mind Frances McDormand’s Academy Award-winning turn in Fargo — both are genuinely sweet, provincial heroines who blithely apply their positive worldview when encountering evil.

The easygoing plot threads unfold at their own pace, allowing you to enjoy the gentle rhythms and genuine nature of the characters. Precious’ uptight secretary (Dreamgirls‘ Anika Noni Rose) gradually overcomes her indignity over working at such a place to the point where she lives and breathes detective work. Lucien Msamati is an unconventional male lead, but he provides solid support as JLB Maketoni, who seems to be a possible romantic interest for Precious in future episodes. It’s all so pleasant that it’s jarring when The Wire‘s Idris Elba shows up as a for-sure bad guy toward the end. But even his villainy is no match for Precious’ ingenuity.

Scott says her sense of how to portray her character was complete once she set foot in Botswana. “There was such a gentle nature to the people that I understood why [Precious] Ramotswe was so kind and so gentle and so loving and why she wants the best for her country,” she says. “Botswana was never tainted or touched by apartheid. … They don’t have ugliness. They just don’t have it.”

The series was shot on location in Botswana, so viewers can take satisfaction knowing they’re seeing the real landscape and not some facsimile in the American Southwest.

Photo: Credit: Keith Bernstein/HBO