I’ve accepted the possibility that HBO may never again create a TV series with either the dramatic depth of The Sopranos or the insightful social criticism of The Wire. But as long as the pay-cable network keeps airing original, first-rate productions like The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, it will remain essential to discerning viewers.
Out on DVD this week, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Complete First Season is a comedy-drama set in the landlocked Southern African nation of Botswana and based on the best-selling novels of Alexander McCall Smith. The central figure in the series, whose seven episodes ran on HBO this past Spring, is Precious Ramotswe (played by the Grammy-winning American jazz/R&B singer Jill Scott), a novice detective lacking in experience but guided by intelligence, acute powers of observation, a sly wit, a big heart and general good sense.
After her beloved father dies, she uses her inheritance to purchase a small, dilapidated building in a shopping center on the outskirts of Gaborone, Botswana’s capital city, and sets up her practice.
Smith’s novels were developed for television (by BBC in Great Britain, in partnership with HBO in the US) by legendary filmmakers Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa). Both men served as executive producers and Minghella directed the two-hour pilot episode, which he co-wrote with another prominent filmmaker, Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral).
Minghella and Pollack both died suddenly in 2008, after the pilot was finished. The pilot and the subsequent episodes reflect its creators’ love for Botswana and its people. McCall admits, in the DVD documentary Botswana: The Gem of Africa, that his books’ depiction of Botswanan society is “slightly idealized”.
And Minghella, interviewed in the behind-the-scenes DVD documentary Anthony Minghella’s No. 1 Film enthusiastically expresses his admiration for “this incredible country and its peacefulness, its decency, big-heartedness and friendliness.”
Botswana, a nation of about two million people, has become one of Africa’s most stable and prosperous nations, with a relatively high rate of literacy, employment and life expectancy and a democratically elected government. Yet, like other nations in Africa, it has suffered greatly from the international HIV-AIDS epidemic, with between one-quarter and one-third of its population infected.
But unlike its large neighbor, South Africa, the public health officials of Botswana have responded to the crisis with openness, effective treatment and educational campaigns.
The series acknowledges the HIV-AIDS situation in subtle, yet powerful ways. Several episodes include scenes at local orphanages, which are overflowing with young children. And one of the key characters, Precious’ uptight secretary Grace Makutsi (played by African-American actress Anika Noni Rose), is taking care of a very ill brother.
For the most part, the cases Precious takes on range from deadly serious matters such as the kidnapping of children and the illicit ivory trade to ones played more for comic relief, as in some cases involving philandering husbands, imposters and mysterious burglaries.
Scott may not be an experienced actress, but she’s perfect for the role of Precious, embodying both the physical stature of this “traditionally built African woman” (while intentionally gaining weight for her part, Scott also found out she was pregnant) and what Minghella calls her “complicated” blend of strength and vulnerability.
In both her work and her life, Precious is aided not only by her secretary, but by local auto mechanic and would-be suitor JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati) and gay hairdresser/next-door neighbor BK (Desmond Dube).
In addition to the regular cast members, guest appearances by some familiar faces highlight the series. Idris Elba, so powerful as Stringer Bell on The Wire portrays a dangerous gangster. Colin Salmon, a British actor who has appeared in several James Bond films and costarred in Prime Suspect 2 has a recurring role as Precious’ abusive ex-husband, jazz trumpet player Note Mokote. And CCH Pounder (The Shield) shows up as an American mother who has come to Botswana to inquire about the death of her son.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is the first major film or TV project shot entirely in Botswana, and the series takes full advantage of the country’s magnificent flora and fauna. It features Botswanan actors in many roles, and a considerable number of locals were engaged in behind-the-camera work.
And it makes wonderful use of the country’s music, from traditional folk tunes to the latest sounds from the dance floor. (Another DVD documentary, The Beat of Botswana offers a look at the diversity of this indigenous music.)
But most significantly, the series moves at a slow, deliberative pace that seems perfectly in tune with the country’s hot and dry climate. Nothing aids our detective’s sleuthing, interviews with clients and discussions with associates as much as a good cup of bush tea.
Instead of a dark, noirish look at the underside of Botswanan society, Precious’ investigations often take place in bright sunshine that brings out the lively and exuberant patterns and colors of local apparel and structures. Neither guns nor f-bombs are seen or heard in this portrait of a very polite and respectful culture.
Although The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency occasionally drifts into too-cute territory — particularly in its overdone depiction of secretary Grace’s awkwardness and naivety — the series maintains a high standard of writing, production values and performance. According to an HBO spokesperson, the network has not yet decided whether it will produce additional episodes of the series. Here’s one enthusiastic vote for a Season Two.