Pop quiz: If you were HBO, and had burned through season after season of violence and profanity on The Sopranos, Oz, Deadwood, and The Wire, what show would you commission to take the slot of the somewhat violent, profane Big Love? If you said The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, you would be correct. If you are surprised by that answer, you would also be correct. Parachuting Precious Ramotswe into the land of Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen, and Omar Little seems…odd.
This is a show, after all, that essentially opens with an adorable, brilliant girl who has a meerkat sitting on her head and closes with clever animation over the end credits. The lead character is besotted with her country of Botswana and just wants everyone to behave in a manner befitting that motherland. She solves the case of an imposter father with a nurse’s uniform and the threat of a transfusion, and the case of a missing child with a cake (well, sort of). Steve Buscemi slamming a stripper’s head into a curb, this is not.
And thank goodness for that, because Mma Ramotswe deserves a television landscape all her own. Jill Scott, perhaps better know for her singing career, is excellent as our No. 1 detective, who has left an abusive husband and used her late father’s legacy to start a new life. She’s hard-nosed and soft-hearted by turns, and not above being nosy and heartsick as the situation requires. Perhaps even better is Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as Mma Makutsi, the new secretary who set an all-time high on her qualification exam. The stellar scene between the two where Mma Makutsi grimly explains that she regularly loses out on jobs to prettier, but less able, secretaries and Precious instantly understands what Mma Makutsi’s’ life has been like makes clear the differences between The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and HBO’s previous shows: this is a woman’s world, with a focus on women’s lives, women’s problems, women’s anger and desire and understandings. And these particular women are going to clean up the neighborhood.
A charming and lovingly photographed neighborhood it is, too, with Botswana being a compelling character in the drama. The show does not move at a snappy pace (I predict said pace will be criticized hither and yon by people used to more murder in their crime shows), and that would have been true even without the gentle hand of (the late, great) Anthony Minghella, who directed the pilot and wasn’t exactly known for moving a story along at a fast clip. The pace reflects the setting, creating a storytelling flow unlike anything else on television today. There are still plenty of laughs (Mma Makutsi’s running commentary from the outer office); there is still plenty of menace (provided by the boatload in this episode by the terrific Idris Elba [The Wire, The Office]); there is still romance (between Precious and neighborly mechanic JLB Matekoni [Lucian Msamati]) and mystery (where was that finger really lost?). Those things just unfurl at the pace of life instead of with a craggy white guy poking them in time to bad techno music on CBS.
So make yourself a cup of bush tea and settle in to watch Mma Ramotswe solve cases of claimed paternity, cheating husbands, and missing children–this focus on the ways real women’s lives get caught up in loss, confusion, and mystery translates across all continents. Sunday nights on HBO, with reruns throughout the week.