Out of Africa

'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'

The rooibos tea industry is missing a terrific product-placement opportunity. HBO is launching The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a seven-episode drama adapted from Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling novels about a full-figured sleuth in Botswana. In the two-hour pilot, investigator Precious Ramotswe (AKA Mma Ramotswe) and her acquaintances putter about their business, drinking innumerable cups of bush tea—another name for rooibos, a caffeine-free beverage derived from a southern African shrub. The show’s narrative pace is relaxed, the camera work bright, busy, and atmospheric: there might easily be room for a few shrewdly placed shots of logo-emblazoned packaging, promoting specific tea brands.

But nothing so venal errs into view in the inaugural episode, directed by the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and scheduled to air on Sunday, March 29. (Subsequent episodes have been directed by Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and coauthored the No. 1 Ladies’ pilot with Minghella.) And yet, to judge by the initial installment, No. 1 Ladies’ will particularly appeal to the mature, tisane-quaffing set. Premiered on BBC last year, the series is exotic but not disorienting, reveling in African vistas that smack of National Geographic. It’s packed with oh-so-quirky characterization, elaborated in cozy two-person scenes. And the plot lines wouldn’t faze a kindergartener: as was true in the novel that introduced Mma Ramotswe, the mysteries are less Sherlock Holmes than Encyclopedia Brown.

Moreover, there’s an upbeat, power-of-positive-thinking vibe to the show—particularly noticeable because HBO is better known for transmitting brilliantly dark entertainment like Six Feet Under and The Wire. Minghella’s pilot kicks off with gorgeous aerial shots, sweeping over swamps and acacia-dotted veldt with an exuberance calculated to put a skip in the step of everyone at the Botswana Tourism Board. (The series was filmed in the country.) Subsequent sun-drenched tableaux show the young Precious (Kudrah Alabi) learning concentration, patriotism, and patience from her father (Vasco Shoba). Watch out, Animal Planet! This kid can stay so still that a meerkat will balance on her head.

When her father dies years later, the entrepreneurial adult Precious (Jill Scott) uses her inheritance to set up a detective agency in the city of Gaborone. “We women, we notice some things that men do not notice,” she informs J. L. B. Maketoni (Lucian Msamati), the mild-mannered garage owner who soon becomes her suitor. By the end of the pilot, Mma Ramotswe has successfully launched her business, outwitted a few not-very-cunning malefactors, and done some quality bonding with her oddball secretary (Anika Noni Rose).

It’s all heartwarming stuff—and unfortunately, the line between heartwarming and cutesy can be very fine. The No. 1 Ladies’ novel itself falters on the distinction. Sometimes the characters come across as real and complex people (the sad tale of Mma Ramotswe’s brief marriage to a musician, for instance, will resonate with anyone who recalls feeling conflicted, vulnerable, and romantically dazzled). But at other times McCall Smith, who was born in the country that is now Zimbabwe, and has taught at the University of Botswana, seems to treat his creations with a patronizing wonderment, as if to say, “Aren’t these Batswana quaint?”

The page-to-screen transition seems to have intensified that air of bemused condescension. In the No. 1 Ladies’ novel—which supplies the storylines for the HBO pilot—J. L. B. Maketoni donates an old but functioning typewriter to Mma Ramotswe’s detective agency. In the television rendering of the scene, he donates two typewriters, each of which is missing certain letters. Between the two machines, he informs Mma Ramotswe, she should have the alphabet covered. Actually, as it turns out, neither keyboard boasts an “h.” The novel’s version of the episode takes the characters relatively seriously; the television approach makes the scenario, and the characters, a little too twee.

The drift toward cartoonishness is particularly noticeable in the portrait of the secretary, Mma Makutsi—a part that may have been inflated for the benefit of Rose (one of the stars of the movie Dreamgirls). The actress struts about with an air of twitchy primness, rapping out cornball lines (“Did I slip without realizing into a time warp?” the computer-versed secretary demands when the typewriters arrive) and generally hamming it up, to the detriment of the story’s overall tone.

On a more positive note, Scott (a Grammy Award-winning singer) and Msamati turn in exceptionally affecting performances, suggesting their characters’ sense of humor and buried sadnesses. Their turns, and the painterly exploration of the Botswana landscape, may make No. 1 Ladies’ worth monitoring. But, given the cutesy factor, the show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

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