Although I am a voracious consumer
of mystery novels, I never got around to Alexander McCall Smith's
series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, and I suppose the
main reason for that was because I smelled a concoction tailor-made
for the Martha Stewart crowd. Think about it: a woman opens a
detective agency in an exotic locale; many topical issues are touched
upon, and her cases don't involve a lot of physical danger.
Oh, and much tea is consumed. It's like Miss Marple, but without
the edgy wit or, as it turns out, murder.
The books were adapted as an
HBO series by no less than Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella
and the king of charming English romcoms, Richard Curtis. (They
collaborated on the pilot's script, with Minghella directing; the
remaining episodes were handled by others equally capable.) One
would think with Minghella's involvement, the pilot would have been
released as a theatrical feature; in fact, the series, while well-received,
has not as of this writing been picked up for a second season.
The feature-length pilot sets
up the background of the main character, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott).
Upon her father's death, Precious sells the many cattle he has left
her and moves to the city. Here, she sets up shop as the only
female private detective in Botswana, motivated to help people with
their problems, and by national pride. Precious hires a prissy,
awkward secretary, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), who proudly works
without pay until Precious turns a profit. Her first cases involve
a cheating husband, a potential impostor, and a missing finger.
With the help of Mma Makutsi, and the gentlemanly mechanic Mr. Maketoni
(Lucian Msamati), Precious solves all three of these cases. Along
the way, she learns some lessons of detection the hard way.
The pilot glides confidently
along beneath Minghella's sure hand. We are brought swiftly
into a foreign land that never feels strange. The lovely photography
by Seamus McGarvey and regionally-inspired score by Gabriel Yared help
immeasurably. The whole, however, is carried by the lovely Jill
Scott, whose charisma and emotional nuances prove a talent far greater
than her Grammy-winning voice.
As far as story, substance,
and energy, I felt that the pilot and especially the subsequent six
episodes were lacking. Although the trappings of the production
are beyond reproach, there's just not much real weight here - it's
very light stuff. It may be a bit unsettling to think about, but
I'm not breaking new ground by saying that gentle humor, heartfelt
relationships, and a cast of humane, likable characters do not make
for great drama. For that reason, I'm surprised that Minghella
was drawn to the material - his brilliant films often deal with self-hating
characters trying to find some kind of light within themselves.
This is not to say that there
is anything objectionable about The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
There's not. It's a likable series. It's just not
Following the pilot, six further
episodes explore new cases taken by Precious, and begin to develop some
interesting character-specific story arcs.
Episode 2: "The Big
Bonanza" (written by Nicholas Wright, directed by Charles Sturridge)
Episode 3: "Poison"
(Wright and Sturridge)
Episode 4: "The Boy
with an African Heart" (Wright and Sturridge)
Episode 5: "Problems
in Moral Philosophy" (written by Robert Jones, directed by Tim Fywell)
Episode 6: "Beauty
and Integrity" (Jones and Fywell)
Episode 7: "A Real
Botswana Diamond" (Jones and Fywell)
In these, the mousy, brittle
Mma Makutsi slowly develops from a near-caricature into a deeply-shaded
character, and this transition is handled with grace by Rose.
Mr. Maketoni's obvious affection for Precious maintains a healthy
level of narrative suspense as to the "will they or won't they?"
question. And the cases take on slightly darker tones at times,
engaging with topical material including AIDS and ivory smuggling.
The three primary characters really are lovable, and by the season's
end you know you will miss them. Still, I can't say that I'll
actively seek out a second season of the show should it come to pass
in the future. It's well-made, pleasing entertainment, but is
not narratively gripping or fundamentally memorable.
For this three-disc set, HBO has slipped a nice hardcover tri-fold
book into a card slipcover. The sturdy package features some nice
All seven episodes are presented in enhanced 1.78:1 transfers.
The beautiful color palette of the series really shines - earthy African
tones blended with bright blues and greens. The pilot in particular
positively glows with wonderfully-captured light. The photography
is uniformly excellent, and is served well by a crisp, clean transfer.
Black levels are wanting here and there, but it's a small point.
The 5.1 surround track is a
pleasure to listen to. While certainly not the most active or
spectacular mix, the surrounds spread out the wonderful musical score
and ambient effects with a gentle precision. The dialogue is recorded
flawlessly, eliminating the potential for confusion over the heavily
accented performances. A solid, engaging track. A secondary
stereo Spanish track is available as well.
A handful of nice features
are included. Each episode is accompanied by an optional Author's
Diary, a three- or four-minute video piece narrated by Alexander
McCall Smith, who offers a unique perspective on each story.
The remaining features are
all gathered on Disc 3. First, there is Anthony Minghella's
No. 1 Film (30:02), an in-depth look at the late director's development
of the pilot. Botswana: The Gem of Africa
is a travelogue-like exploration of the series' setting, complemented
by interviews with cast and crew. The Making of The No. 1 Ladies'
Detective Agency (11:33) is just what it sounds like. The
fascinating The Beat of Botswana
(11:08) is a lively look at the country's varied music.
I enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, all the while
reminded of the too-early loss of Anthony Minghella, a committed, intelligent,
and passionate filmmaker. His influence on the feature-length
pilot episode is evident in the sumptuous photography and the carefully-developed
characters. In the end, though, there's no escaping the series'
lack of narrative momentum, and the final effect is one of agreeable
niceness. Still, with much to like and nothing to actively dislike,
this well-produced set is recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.