How I learned to stop worrying and love 'No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency'
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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - Before we count the ways "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" makes me delighted that I can still afford HBO, a confession: I had a qualm or two about lavishing so much praise on this series, adapted from the wildly popular mysteries by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith.
"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," as you may know, is set in Botswana, where Smith spent much of his childhood. Located on the northern border of South Africa, Botswana is one of the continent's luckier nations, with decades of good government and steady income from its diamond preserves making it a shining star, especially when compared to such neighbors as war-ravaged Angola and Mugabe-ravaged Zimbabwe.
The books, and the HBO series, revolve around a woman named Precious Ramotswe, who has used her late father's inheritance to set up a practice as the country's first female crime-solver. Full-figured and then some, Precious _ played by the American singer Jill Scott _ easily weathers the comments about her appearance and her audacious career choice because she is supremely self-confident, another gift from her father.
She hires a quirky assistant named Grace (Anika Noni Rose), with whom she maintains an almost comically formal relationship. They serve bush tea to their clients, who are almost always women and almost always bring her cases involving men who have done them wrong: a cheating husband, a dishonest dentist, a sweet-talking swindler. Adding to the series' pocket size, the episodes (like the novels) are not built around one major crime to be solved but a series of smaller interconnected sleuthings.
Though she has no training in the detective sciences, Precious is a natural gumshoe. What animates her is an idea that is the central conceit of "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency": No one knows the men of Botswana better than its women. Many cases are solved simply by outsmarting the opposite sex in ways that border on the insultingly obvious.
The comparison is unavoidable between "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and the BBC series "Hetty Wainthropp Investigates," which aired in the 1990s on PBS. Patricia Routledge's Hetty was an middle-aged, middle-class English gadfly who tackled crimes the local constabulary considered too petty to trouble with. She too had an assistant (played by a young Dominic Monaghan) that no one had previously given a fair shake.
But while Hetty and her surroundings were familiar to Anglo-American audiences, Precious and the world she occupies is utterly unlike anything we are accustomed to seeing on our TVs. In interviews, Smith has said he tried to depict the Botswana that is off the beaten path taken by tourists to his native country, a disarmingly ordinary place rich in customs and culture. Originally filmed for the big screen, it was turned into a seven-episode series through the trusty HBO-BBC partnership that produced "Rome."
The two directors responsible for adapting "Ladies' Detective Agency," Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack (now both unfortunately deceased), reproduced that world on screen as a spare, dusty cityscape where Western decadence is largely kept at arms' length. (The flashiest possessions tend to belong to bad guys, like a gangster in Sunday night's two-hour premiere played by Idris Elba.)
And that brings me to my qualm. For most Americans, this is the only glimpse of Africa they will see on TV all year, and such an odd vision of Africa it is. It looks like it was filmed in 1975. Watching "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" you will have no clue as to the humanitarian challenges being faced in sub-saharan Africa. Botswana, in fact, has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and its 1.6 million inhabitants can expect to live on average less than 34 years.
Honest, I'm not someone who obsesses over the condition of refugees in Darfur, though I probably should. And yet, squaring the realities of Africa against the fairy-tale Africa of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," where the worst thing Precious and Grace were likely to stumble upon was a cheating husband, was proving surprisingly difficult for me. That is, until I had a simple four-word epiphany.
Cheating husbands spread AIDS.
So ... maybe the stakes weren't as low as I'd originally thought.
And in the end, I had to give in to sheer enjoyment. My wife and I couldn't load the next episode into the DVD player fast enough. This is simply one of the most beguiling little treasures to reach American viewers in quite some time.
Aaron Barnhart lives online at TVBarn.com.
© 2009, The Kansas City Star.
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