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'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' on HBO

TELEVISION REVIEW

Set in Africa, the whodunit series is smart, unconventional and a visual feast.

March 27, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

There are so many reasons to watch "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," which premieres Sunday night on HBO, that it's hard to choose which one to lead with. So we'll go with what viewers experience first: the green and golden glory of Africa.

Set and shot in Botswana, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is based on the successful series of the same name by Alexander McCall Smith and co-written and executive produced by Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "The Girl in the Cafe") and the late Anthony Minghella ("Cold Mountain," "The English Patient"). The patina of that remarkable pedigree is visible from the very first moment the camera soars over the verdant river banks and dusty plains, the haughty giraffes and startled meerkats, lighting then upon the modest village that's home to Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott).

Even before we see her on-screen, Scott, a three-time Grammy winner, is a revelation; her summer-glazed creamy tones are the reason the voice-over was invented. Precious slowly tells of her loving father and his insistence that she learn everything a boy would, and soon we learn that, as a child, she solved a village argument over the ownership of a cow. Then somewhere amid the rising white dust and glimmering insects, it becomes clear that this show will restore the premium cable network to its former stature as the most surprising place on television.

As the title would indicate, this is a criminal procedural, but not since Jane Marple upended the detective construct with her fleecy shawls and quiet parochial insights has there been a detective so outside the far-flung borders of convention. Languid is not the goal of most detective shows, network or cable, but languid, in the best, lovely and strangely invigorating sense, this show is.

Into a world dominated by sociopaths, depressives, addicts and other broken heroes comes Precious, an earth mother in brightly colored batik, with her abiding belief in the basic goodness of life. After her father dies and leaves her wealth in the form of 180 cows, Precious leaves her village for the town of Gaborone where she becomes a detective because, she says, she loves her country, Botswana, and because people want to know things, to understand why things have happened to them. And she would like to help them.

Aiding her quest are Grace, the straight-backed stickler of a secretary played with marvelous humor and humanity by Anika Noni Rose; BK (Desmond Dube), the gay hairdresser whose salon is next door to the agency; and JLB (Lucian Msamati), the solid and lovable mechanic who quickly becomes enamored with the lady detective.

But Precious is not looking for love -- an abusive marriage has left her wounded and wary. Instead she wants to solve the everyday mysteries that plague the people around her: the husband who seems unfaithful, the dentist who has strange mood swings, the child who has gone missing. No case is too small, though most turn out to be a bit larger than they first seemed, and Precious is no armchair detective -- she can wield a gun or a hunting knife just as effectively as she can her feminine intuition.

But "The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency" is about crime the same way, say, "Rescue Me" is about fire. With the rich and vibrant production values of a fine feature film -- Seamus McGarvey ("Atonement," "The Hours") is director of photography, for heaven's sake -- it is a paean to place and character that wallows instead of races, unfurls instead of cuts.

Scott, with her "traditional African figure," is simply gorgeous, creating the sort of gentle but steely woman who has fallen out of narrative favor for absolutely no good reason save our seemingly bottomless need for cynical one-liners. Of these, none can be found in "The Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency," although Grace provides plenty of humor through what, in another context, would be considered strait-laced Yankee sense.

But this is Botswana, a land unexplored by many Americans, with its dizzying scenery, oddly formal syntax, open-aired schools, bush tea and, of course, colorful native garb. It's easy to predict that the wide headbands Precious wears will soon become a must-have and Grace, though at first dowdy, turns out to have one of the most interesting wardrobes since "Sex and the City."

Most important, however, is the purpose of the show. Here is a slow and careful exploration of the dark and sunny rivers that run through the human soul, the ever-teetering balance between good and evil that keeps the world spinning. Scenes unspool, lives unwind, wicked acts are done, but so is justice, and under the lovely and indifferent African sun, it seems there is all the time in the world. It's hard to imagine a better place to be.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'

Where: HBO

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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