HBO's smart series 'The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency' defies popular notions of Africa

BY ERIC CHIU
Daily Arts Writer
Published April 7, 2009

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”
Sunday at 8:00 p.m.
HBO

Courtesy of HBO

3.5 out of 5 stars

Africa falls into a somewhat awkward niche in the pop culture lexicon — it has gradually become the new Eastern Europe for films and television shows in need of a desolate, godforsaken setting. Whether or not this reputation is wholly merited, it’s inadvertently at work in HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” which takes great pleasure in shifting expectations about shows set in contemporary Africa.

Based on the series of novels by British author Alexander McCall Smith, the show follows Botswana’s only female detective, Precious Ramotswe (singer Jill Scott). The show essentially transplants a basic procedural format — Precious, like the protagonists of FOX’s “House” and USA Network’s “Psych,” is an expert at solving mysteries — to an African backdrop. The show’s execution, however, keeps everything fresh.

Scott, who is better known as a singer than an actress, is excellent as Precious, bringing the right amounts of humor and gravity to the role. Whether goading a corrupt insurance agent or being faced down by a gangster, it’s easy to think of Precious as a detective whose ambition sometimes exceeds her skills. At the same time, Scott’s relationship with her secretary Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose, “Dreamgirls”), who serves as her proficient — if socially inept — partner, keeps the tone especially light, thanks to the strength of both performances.

It’s especially rare to find a program that manages to establish its identity so quickly. The show’s Botswanan backdrop is as much of a character as its cast, and the leisurely pace lets all of Botswana’s facets be thoroughly explored. From the shots of the African savanna to the booming capital city of Gaborone (all backed by a pan-African influenced soundtrack), the show affectionately wears its cultural and geographic influences on its sleeve.

Thankfully, “Detective Agency” doesn’t blatantly play off viewers’ emotions the way some movies about Africa do. Outside of some unsubtle visual bits in the pilot about the political problems of the region, the show sticks to focusing on the human drama of its characters. The show doesn’t gloss over the realities of the country, though, as plotlines delve into such subjects as HIV/AIDS and child abduction. "Detective Agency," however, doesn’t try to pull off melodrama where it can’t, and it’s better because of it.

But the show’s mishandling of its procedural format derails things slightly. The episodes thus far have been anchored around the agency solving cases of the week, but the action never builds a sense of weight toward an overarching storyline. The case inevitably gets solved, but without any indication that it’ll actually matter by the next episode. The show ends up feeling more lightweight than its pedigree deserves.

Still, solid performances and the show’s undeniable charm make it hard to nitpick its faults. Even if “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” relies too heavily on a basic formula, it gets enough right for a satisfying, if familiar, end product.