Now comes “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” and “sweet” is definitely one of the words I’d use to describe it. Captivating and charming too. Lovely to look at and full of life, it’s one of the best new series this season.
The show is based on the best-selling series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith (which I have not read, so I can’t speak to the show’s fidelity to the books) and follows Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), the proprietor of the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana. Sunday’s (March 29) two-hour premiere introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, who has inherited 180 cows from her late father and, after selling them and escaping both her abusive ex-husband and an oily lawyer looking for a cut, moves to the capital city, Gaborone, and fulfills a dream by opening her own detective agency in an old post office.
She hires a secretary, the efficient and prickly Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose, “Dreamgirls”), and waits for clients to come calling. And waits — business is slow in coming at first. But when it does, Mma Ramotswe is able to put her keen powers of observation — another gift from her father — and natural intelligence to work to help people solve their problems.
Her cases aren’t always life-and-death matters; Sunday’s premiere features a woman who thinks her long-lost father is really an impostor sponging off her, and later episodes deal with everything from lost pets to break-ins to an American woman searching for her son, who came to Botswana to work on an agricultural project several years earlier and disappeared. (That story, with CCH Pounder of “The Shield” playing the mother, is the focus of episode four, and it’s deeply affecting.)
Singer Scott has done some acting before, but in her first lead role she inhabits Mma Ramotswe completely, from the way she speaks to the way she walks and her search to make things right for her clients. She may come off as naive, but Mma Ramotswe has had more than her share of sorrow in life, and you can see it in Scott’s face as she listens to the sad stories some of her clients have. It’s a fine performance.
Scott and Rose also share a nice chemistry, as Mma Ramotswe’s more open and trusting manner clashes with Mma Makutsi’s exacting and easily disturbed nature. Mma Ramotswe also has a suitor in JLB Matekoni (Luican Msamati), an auto mechanic who occasionally lends his insight into her work.
Sunday’s pilot was co-written directed by the late Anthony Minghella, and he did a fantastic job with it. The pilot and all subsequent episodes were filmed in Botswana, which gives “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” a unique visual identity in the TV landscape and helps inform the characters. The pilot’s other writer, Richard Curtis (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”), has remained on as an executive producer and has helped ensure a consistent look and voice for the show.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is not a show for action junkies; Mma Ramotswe approaches her job deliberately, and the pace of the show reflects that. It also, however, reflects the character’s generous spirit — HBO hasn’t had a more welcoming show in some time. It’s a great addition to the TV landscape.
“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Sunday, March 29.
Interested in other female crime-solvers? Check out a gallery of our favorite female detectives.