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Honey Traps and Bush Tea: An Advance Review of HBO's "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"

HBO has become synonymous with high-end dramas that are typically pretty dark, rather bleak, and usually pretty darn violent. Series like The Sopranos, Rome, Carnivale, True Blood, Big Love, and In Treatment all offer gripping if often disheartening looks into the darker elements of the human soul.

So what should audiences make of the fact that HBO is launching the far sunnier No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency this weekend?

Set in Botswana, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, based on the series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe (the incandescent Jill Scott), a woman who has left her abusive jazz musician husband Note (Colin Salmon) and, after the passing of her beloved father, uses his cattle to raise cash to start a detective agency in the capital city of Gaborone.

I had the opportunity to watch the first four episodes of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, including the gorgeously produced two-hour pilot episode written by Anthony Minghella and Richard Curtis and directed by the late Minghella, and instantly fell in love with the series' upbeat charms and what will surely become its trademark blend of mystery and magic. It's a series that's filled with joy and never falls prey to the sort of tea-cozy tweeness that populates a lot of whodunits.

Scott's Precious Ramotswe is quite a detective. She has an unerring sense of intuition, a headstrong nature, and a nose for danger. Unlike other gumshoes, she's also warm and charismatic and has a love for bush tea; Precious strives to make her clients feel welcome. That is, if she actually had any clients. Converting the desolate post office into her HQ, she sets about to offer her services as a private investigator... and ends up landing, not a client, but a high-strung secretary (who graduated at the top of her class with a 97 percent score, as she likes to remind us) in the form of bespectacled Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose).

The entire cast is top notch and the pilot alone features guest turns from such actors as Idris Elba (The Wire), terrifying here as a local crime lord with a penchant for witchcraft "medicine," Colin Salmon (Doctor Who) as Precious' trumpet-playing ex-husband, and David Oyelowo (Spooks) as the target of Precious' first investigation, a philandering husband whom she lures into a honey trap. (Look for The Shield's CCH Pounder to turn up in the fourth episode.) Each of them are given moments to shine as actors and they feel wholly integrated into the cast, a real feat for any ongoing television series, much less in a pilot episode.

As for the main cast, Scott and Rose are absolutely sensational as Precious and Makutsi respectively. Scott radiates a warmth and openness that is rarely--if ever--seen on a television series, imbuing Precious with an inquisitive nature and an almost Zen-like calm in the face of danger (and, yes, she does often end up way over her head). Contrasting with the warm roundness of Scott (her "traditional" figure), Rose is all angles and tension. Her Grace Makutsi is wound as tightly as a spring yet she's very eager to please, even tapping away at two typewriters procured by Precious' patient would-be-suitor JLB Matekoni (played with aplomb by Lucian Msamati), neither of which have all of their keys. Rounding out the fantastic cast is the fantastic Desmond Dube as flamboyant hairdresser BK of the Last Chance Hair Salon. In a way, they are all outsiders in the cosmopolitan environs of Gaborone and they quickly form a makeshift support system for one another... and wind up quickly drawn into Precious' investigations themselves.

While their relationship is cordial and professional (if more than a little strained due to Grace's interference), both Precious and Grace are hiding dark secrets from one another and therefore can't be completely open and honest. For Precious, it's the truth about what happened with the abusive husband she left behind and the child she lost. For Grace, it's her efforts to conceal the fact that her brother is afflicted with AIDS. Will either come clean to the other about their situations?

But as I said earlier, No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency doesn't put its main focus on the dark side of life (though the cases are often rather tragic, dealing in the first few episodes with kidnapping, witchcraft, poisoning, murder, medical fraud, AIDS orphans, etc.) but rather on the spirit of community and openness that categorizes the nation of Botswana. And Botswana really is a character unto itself here, presented in all of its gorgeous majesty and color. It's a swirling landscape populated with colorful characters, vibrant sunsets, and lush landscapes. It's easy to see why Precious is so at home here: the land is as bountiful and inviting as she is.

Ultimately, the transcendent No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a rare beast, the sort of television that invites you into a world that is overflowing with an infectious joy. And in these dark economic times, anything that's this soulfully uplifting and remarkably genial, from Scott's marvellous turn as Precious to the series' adorable animated credit sequences, deserves your attention. Even if it doesn't inspire you to take that trip to Botswana (and, believe me, it will), spending your Sunday evening with Precious and Grace might just be the perfect way to end your weekend.

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency launches with a two-hour premiere on Sunday evening at 8 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Ally said…
I was wondering if I should check this out - your review has pushed me into it. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for yet another insightful review, Jace. I hadn't heard about this show before the other day and will definitely be watching it on Sunday after reading this!
ewench said…
Weirdly, my husband got way more into these books then I did and I probably would have skipped this program if he wasn't into it. I am go glad I didn't as the show was incredibly charming and I will definitely be watching in the future.
MeganE said…
Great review! I had this sitting on my Tivo and finally watched it last night after reading your glowing remarks. And you were absolutely right. The show is upbeat and positive without being treacly or cliched. I instantly fell in love with the cast and am already looking forward to the next episode!

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