HBO // 2009 // 451 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 21st, 2009
Never underestimate a woman's intuition.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency began as a series of self-published books by writer Alexander McCall Smith. The books became successful enough, though, to attract the attention of heavyweight directors Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) and Sydney Pollack (Tootsie), who helped turn the stories into a BBC/HBO coproduced series; Minghella even directed the nearly two-hour pilot, which would sadly be the last thing he directed before his death. As it turns out, it would be a worthy tribute. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is an entertaining and witty series that, while not groundbreaking dramatically, is still a pleasure to watch.
After her father dies and leaves her a modest inheritance, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott, Why Did I Get Married?) decides to start the first private detective agency owned and run by a woman in Botswana. Assisted by her prudish, high-strung assistant Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls), Precious solves mysteries while bantering with her gay hairdressing neighbor BK (Desmond Dube, Hotel Rwanda) and attempting to start a relationship with kindhearted mechanic JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msmati). This set compiles all seven episodes on three discs:
* "The Big Bonanza"
* "The Boy with an African Heart"
* "Problems in Moral Philosophy"
* "Beauty and Integrity"
* "A Real Botswana Diamond"
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency may be lighthearted, but it certainly isn't lightweight. There's no profanity, graphic violence, or sex, but that doesn't mean that it shies away from tough issues or realistic situations. It just handles them in a very tasteful and sympathetic way, while also allowing for cute moments of humor and uplift. There's no shortage of moments meant to educate viewers about African culture and history, but the characters and dialogue are so well-written and developed you won't feel like you're being subjected to a lecture.
Of course, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is first and foremost a mystery series and in that regard, it definitely delivers. Each episode contains as many as three separate mysteries going on at once, and some mysteries are stretched out over various episodes. Most are pretty small, such as a cheating spouse or a missing dog, but others are far weightier. "The Boy with the African Heart," about a missing American college student, is probably the most serious episode, with a bittersweet ending that isn't necessarily happy. Even that one, however, does have moments of lighthearted humor to balance the sadness. There are also serious references to the AIDS crisis in Africa and child abduction and murder, but these are handled delicately to ensure that while they are given the gravity they deserve, they don't overshadow the rest of the show.
The mysteries are reasonably well-presented, but as is the case with most TV shows, it's the characters that should be defined well enough to keep viewers coming back. Here is where The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency really excels -- you'll want to keep welcoming these characters into your home every week. As Precious, Jill Scott is superb, depicting the character as intelligent and resourceful but also adds a note of gentleness and vulnerability that prevents her from coming off as smug or self-righteous. Anika Noni Rose is the series' scene stealer -- she displays flawless comic timing, all the more impressive because many of her funniest lines come from her character's stiff humorlessness. Desmond Dube is also funny, although his character doesn't appear as regularly. It's the performances and characterization that really make this show such a pleasure, even when the writing falters a little.
HBO has done a nice job putting this show on DVD. The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is stellar, with little grain and bright vivid colors that really show off some gorgeous scenery and beautiful costumes and clothes. The 5.1 surround mix is remarkably loud, but also very well balanced, so that the dialogue and audio effects are clear and sharp. There's also a nice selection of extras. Each episode comes with an "Author's Diary," an audio recording with pictures that lasts three or four minutes, in which Smith discusses how he came up with the themes and plots for each episode. There are also some substantial featurettes on Disc Four. "The Making of" (11:33) discusses how the series was put together and contains interviews with cast and crew. "Anthony Minghella's No. 1 Film" (30:02) is an in-depth look at the pilot episode that Minghella directed and that would serve as his epitaph. It's the most significant of the features here. Also informative is "Botswana: The Gem of Africa" (28:33), an examination of Botswana's history and culture that's a must for anyone curious about African history. Finally, "The Beat of Botswana" (11:08) discusses the music and musicians heard on the series.
There's one area where the show has faltered. The budding romance between Precious and JLB isn't really satisfying. The scenes where the two interact as friends are entertaining, due to the talents of Scott and Msmati. The attempt to make them a couple, however, which comes to a head during the last two episodes, is far too rushed and sloppy. Maybe this will be given a better resolution if there is a second season, but for now, this is the one part of the series that doesn't really work.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the sort of series that deserves the title of "family show." The clever writing and lack of any explicit content make it ideal for families to watch together. It would especially be recommended to families with young girls, who will find that Precious, with her mixture of intellect and strength, is a worthy role model. The show deserves a wider audience than that, though, because it's just plain enjoyable on any terms. Though it's a shame that Minghella has passed away, at least his final project resulted in a truly entertaining series. Anyone who's looking for a pleasurable comedy-drama should check this one out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 451 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site