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March 27, 2009

HBO's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" A Review

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Jill scott When I first heard about HBO's new series "The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," I had high hopes that despite the dearth of minorities on primetime television, this show, set in Africa and with an all black cast, was going to be something special.

After all look at what the production had to work with:  it stars the multi-talented Grammy award winning singer and actress, Jill Scott; the two hour pilot was directed by Oscar winner, the late Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"); it was co-produced by the late Sydney Pollack ("Out of Africa") and co-written by Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and A Funeral"). 

Unfortunately, the culmination of all that talent doesn't deliver as well as I had hoped, but the good does outweigh the bad.

<--break->The show is based on a popular series of books by Alexander McCall Smith starring Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's first and only lady detective.  Precious is bright, charming and very good at solving mysteries.  She's also an unabashedly hefty woman who refers to her size as a "traditional build" but it doesn't bother her in the least. 

Jill Scott does a marvelous job as Mma Ramotswe.  Her accent is flawless--at least to me--and she brings to the role a cheerful pride and unfailing confidence.  She's beautiful, she's sexy and in her colorful dresses and matching headbands, she sparkles in the heat of the Botswana sunshine.

Assisting Precious in her detecting adventures is her quirky secretary, Mma Grace Makutsi, played by Anika Noni Rose.  Mma Makutsi is a recent secretarial school graduate with strict ideas about the proper way things should be done.  

Precious drives an old white pickup truck and to keep it in good working order, she often visits her friend and wannabe suitor, JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati).  One of JLB's talents is being able to read a person via their car.  "I can find out more about a man from his car in a minute than I can from talking to him for an hour.  Looking at a man's car is like looking at a man naked, but more pleasant of course."

Rounding out the main characters is BK, played by Desmond Dube.  He's a gay hairdresser, whose character wasn't in the books but whose business is in the same plaza as Precious' detective agency.   

The show was shot on location in Botswana and that adds quite a lot to the feeling of being immersed in another culture. After watching the first five hours of the series I could barely keep myself from addressing women as "Mma" and greeting everyone with "Dumela."   

The charming animated opening and closing credits showing Precious solving her cases sets the tone for a detective series in the Agatha Christie/Miss Marple style of storytelling.  Namely, there are cases to be solved and detecting to be done, but there are also eccentric characters and lighthearted moments.

When a TV pilot relies on character development more than on plotting, like the pilot of "LDA," the characters need to be compelling and/or funny.  In this case, unfortunately, most of the attempts at comedy fall flat. 

Anika Noni Rose is particularly weak when she tries to play Mma Makutsi's more amusing qualities and she's part of the reason the two hour pilot is almost unbearably slow.  

That's not to say there weren't a couple of amusing moments in the pilot.  One of Mma Ramotswe's first cases is trying to prove that a wayward husband is cheating on his wife.  The husband is played with smarmy gusto by David Oyelowo ("The Last King of Scotland" and BBC's "MI-5") and I chuckled several times as he picked up Precious at a bar and then tried to seduce her, oozing lines like, "Oh, you are a beau-ti-ful goddesssss, Mma!"

As the series progresses, it does improve, and by episode three, "Poison," and four, "The Boy with an African Heart," the show appears to find its footing.   This is also where Rose as Mma Makutsi has her strongest scenes, as we find out more about her ailing brother who has AIDS.  Episode four also has a guest starring role by the always reliable CCH Pounder as an America woman who needs Mma Ramotswe's help to find her missing son.  Of all the episodes I watched, that was by far the best.

I've never read the "LDA" books but I'll be interested to hear what viewers who have read the books think of the HBO series.  

"The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency" will be open for business next Sunday, March 29th at 8PM on HBO.  Here's a look at the trailer.

THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY is a production of Mirage Enterprises and Cinechicks; executive producers, Richard Curtis, Anthony Minghella, Amy J. Moore, Sydney Pollack, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein; series producer, Timothy Bricknell 

Photo Credit:  Keith Bernstein and HBO

Cross Posted From BlogHer

Related Links:

Freida's Feminist Book Blog has a review of last year's "Gone Quiet" by Eleanor Taylor Bland.  Bland, a black woman, writes a series of mystery novels starring black female detective Marti MacAlister.

Gretchen at Dumela From Botswana is blogging from Botswana.  She often finds connections to the books:  "I have been for tea at the President's Hotel in town; as refreshing as Precious describes it - and a great vantage point from which to observe all kinds of activity on the Main Mall below."

Margaret at Margaret Hamlin's Blog enjoys the stories because she feels they're "the antithesis of most detective stories as they have a very strong feel good factor and are very entertaining too."

The Both Eyes Book Blog enjoyed the audio version of the "LDA."

Annie at Annie's Treasure Trove also enjoyed "LDA."


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