From Shelf to Screen, This 'Detective' Has What It Takes to Be No. 1

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 29, 2009

It's entirely unnecessary to look for topical relevance or domestic parallels in "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," a new limited-run series from HBO that is engaging, charming and intoxicating entirely on its own. But one line of dialogue spoken by Jill Scott, the star, does sound unavoidably pertinent to the United States of 2009, even though Scott is talking about Botswana:

"We live in a great country," says Scott, as self-taught detective Precious Ramotswe. "We should not be cheating each other." Images of particularly notorious corporate criminals, and even some small-time con artists who advertise on middle-of-the-night TV, pop to mind.

Hard to categorize but easy to enjoy, the seven-episode "Detective Agency" -- which is based on the best-selling novels and begins tonight with a two-hour premiere-- is very much of and about Botswana, and is in fact the first major production to have been filmed entirely on location there. Occasional effusive testimonials to the country may have been put into the script to help ensure government cooperation in filming, but they may just as well be sincerely affectionate; the country is nothing if not photogenic, and the English spoken there infectiously musical.

Botswana's bountiful sunlight seems to make all colors brighter, and color has been splashed extravagantly around the exteriors of buildings. This is a series that truly takes you to another place -- and entertains you enchantingly while you're there. While the mysteries one might expect from the word "detective" in the title are not all frivolous or lighthearted, the overall effect is refreshingly idyllic.

Scott, better known as a three-time Grammy-winning singer and songwriter than as an actress, nevertheless brings playful and intuitive charisma to the role of Precious, who is by no means "precious" in the ickier sense of the word -- though she does have a sort of Rodgers-and-Hammerstein cheerfulness and more pluck than Mary Tyler Moore on her cheeriest day. We first meet Precious as a child in a kind of prologue, listening to the counsel of her adored father, but after she and Daddy go over a hill in one car, she returns, a grown woman mourning his death, in another.

For reasons not entirely articulated, Precious decides to take her lavish inheritance of 150 cows and use some of it to open a detective agency, the first to be founded and operated by a woman in Botswana, if not all of Africa. She finds space in a former post office not far from the Gaborone Hotel and the Last Chance Hair Salon, whose proprietor is a friend and booster. Her first customer, confused, asks for stamps.

What kinds of cases come the agency's way? At first, none, and a trio of local glamour girls scoffingly calls it the "No Customers Detective Agency." About 30 minutes in, a young woman named Grace Makutsi arrives, declaring, "I am the lady in question." She means she's there to apply for the job of secretary, and there being no other apparent candidates, she gets it after a brief trial period. Anika Noni Rose, in the role, makes the character both funny and formidable, an officious no-nonsense worker with a disarming sweetness -- something expressed in sly and touching ways.

"We have absolutely no dissatisfied clients," Makutsi boasts to a potential customer who happens by. It's a safe statement because, so far, there've been no clients period.

They do come, however, each with an intriguing grievance: a woman who thinks her father may be an impostor, a wife who's certain her husband is flagrantly unfaithful, and the proprietor of Speedy Motors, a car repair shop, who is worried about the severed finger found in the glove compartment of a customer's Mercedes. Precious has no serious training other than having half-read a book about detecting, but she has tremendous instincts about what's genuine, what's phony, and what is or isn't true.

The cases are resolved in ways that are for the most part unexpected, though you might anticipate the resolution of the cheating-husband affair once Precious decides to go looking for the bounder at the Go-Go Handsome Men's Bar, where there is nary a go-go dancer in sight but several customers of both sexes who'd qualify as handsome. Later, the severed finger sends Precious on her most perilous and dramatic investigation, appropriately saved for last in the premiere. But even this ends without explicit violence and on an exultant note.

Precious is flattered, while at the bar, to be the object of a flamboyant flirtation from a man who says his nickname is Kremlin -- because he is so good at keeping secrets. He melts her resistance with laserlike efficiency: "I have so many problems," he tells her, "and you are the solution to them all." Precious is on the hefty side, but this is no problem for Kremlin. "Come here, big girl," he purrs.

Music is integral throughout, much of it a cappella singing by a heavenly African chorus. Signs of westernization are scattered throughout the territory, geographical and dramatic. The agency office must do with two clunky old manual typewriters, for instance (both without "h" or "r" keys) instead of a computer, and at home, Precious has an old-fashioned turntable. But she also owns a state-of-the-art digital camera with which to gather evidence.

Two illustrious filmmakers associated with the production died last year, after the two-hour premiere was completed: Anthony Minghella, co-writer and director of the pilot, and Sydney Pollack, who directed Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in "Out of Africa" (1985) and who served here as one of several executive producers. Regardless of how much non-African talent was involved, the film seems at every turn authentic, and almost as invigorating as an actual Botswanan holiday might be.

As for Scott, she is impeccable and ineffable -- not just a singer, not just an actress, but a naturally occurring antidepressant. If there were a hundred detective agencies in Botswana, hers would surely be the most popular, and its customers the happiest even if they left with their mysteries unsolved. Scott appears capable of banishing any doldrums, destroying discouragements and perhaps even obliterating financial anxieties. Come here, big girl; I think I love you.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (two hours) premieres tonight at 8 on HBO.

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