I put The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (debuting Sunday night on HBO) in the DVR expecting it to be a chore. I’m not much of a fan of procedurals; I’m even less a fan of detective novels. (And hence, I have never read the Alexander McCall Smith novels on which this series is based.) Never saw the point. If I want to do a puzzle, I’ll do a puzzle; if I want to read a novel, I want to read a novel.
I ejected the disk surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Which may well mean it’s not actually a very good detective series. But give it a shot. The series follows Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) who founds Botswana’s premiere (because only) female-run detective agency after an inheritance—her father’s herd of cows—makes her a wealthy woman.
Precious is a sort of grown-woman Encyclopedia Brown, and I don’t mean that disparagingly; she’s an enthusiastic amateur (trained by her father to be observant) who takes the job out of a generally sunny desire to help others using her gifts. Her beaming disposition (Scott plays the self-described woman of “traditional” figure as a radiant orb) hides a more troubled past with an abusive husband, however. And though Ladies’ is largely a breezy, optimistic diversion, it’s clear that her worldview—and her talent at figuring people out—is informed by a sense of the worst they can do.
This outlook is reflected in the cases she takes on, which range from comical (missing dogs and straying husbands) to darkly disturbing (gang-related child abduction). Even in the more ugly cases, however, Precious sees herself through with confidence and a faith that the better side of people will out. She frequently refers to having taken the job out of a sense of patriotic duty that obligates her to make Botswana better and bring out its best side. And that philosophy is reflected in the show, which seems to want to be a corrective—both in the breezily funny scripts and the luscious photography—to the media image of Africa as epicenter of all human misery.
Ladies’ doesn’t generally preach this happy Afrocentrism as much as it embodies it: simply existing, as a diverting detective caper set in Africa, is enough. It gets tremendous help from the supporting cast, especially Anika Noni Rose, in a breakout performance as Precious’ fussy, uptight secretary Grace Makutsi, a recent secretarial college graduate who prides herself vocally on having the highest score in her graduating class.
All this has the potential to be a little corny, but Ladies’ is that rare show that manages to be uncynical without being cloying. If there is such a thing as the opposite of a noir detective story, this is it. I’m not sure I’ll become a regular viewer of this series, though I was surprised how eagerly I kept feeding episodes into the DVD player. It may be starting to make me a less cynical person, and as a professional critic, I’m not sure I can afford that.