Some of the finest work in visual entertainment over the last two decades has been done on television, the best series outpacing the previously more artistic medium of film. And I recently came across a shimmering gem of a show that, sadly, had an all too brief and largely overlooked run: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
I love the detective fiction genre from its early leading lights such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett through the recently deceased Elmore Leonard and many others, and some of the cinematic and TV gumshoe works are among my favorites. I stumbled across The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on HBO On Demand, and was immediately charmed by its movie length pilot, successively watching all seven episodes with utter delight.
The series was so good and its protagonist and primary characters so winning that I will now head to the 14 books of the same name by author Alex McCall Smith. And I am sure it will begin another enjoyable binge.
The show is notable in many ways, most significantly being set and filmed in the African nation of Botswana – the first TV series made there. It’s redolent with the delicious atmosphere of the place and the friction and at the same time magic that comes from the Third World meeting First World modernity. It’s like a street-level visit to what may be called the Dark Continent even though The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is suffused with the light of its desert domain and climate.
It has similar appeal and qualities to the wonderful film and sequel The Gods Must Be Crazy, also set in Botswana but lensed in neighboring South Africa. And given the ethnocentric focus of most modern filmed entertainment, it’s significant that a show would reveal the essence of what feels like a highly accurate African mise en scene. Just as the series wasn’t as widely viewed as it deserved, we “civilized” and advanced nations tend to give Africa short shrift in our attention and understanding in our consciousness. And to our loss and potential peril, as the continent is, science indicates, where mankind evolved into homo sapiens and a place that will have impact in the future on the rest of the globe by its physical and population alone.
Private detectives are primarily men, although authors like Sue Grafton and her popular book series about female investigator Kiney Milhone have carved out a significant sub-genre. And few if any main characters have the winning charm and soul of Mma Ramotswe, who inherits a large herd of cows – a major source of both wealth and social stature in a number of traditional African cultures – from her father, and sells them to finance a move from her small village to the capital city of Gabarone and opens a detective agency.
Mma Ramotswe chooses the profession because it dovetails with the observational skills that her father taught her about living in the African bush, and they prove invaluable as she sets out to establish her business. Like every fictional detective, she has a retinue that surrounds her: her loyal and rather uptight secretary, an empathetic hairdresser with a salon that neighbors the agency (and an obviously gay man in a very hetero-male-dominated culture), and the genuinely good man, an auto mechanic, who assiduously woos Mma Ramotswe in the wake of her failed and abusive marriage to a talented but vain jazz trumpeter. She also has a TK male detective protagonist, brilliantly played by English actor Idris Elba, best known to American audiences as drug kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire who also plays a far different detective in the BBC TV series Luther.
The vibrant tentpole of the show is American actress, singer-songwriter and poet Jill Scott, who inhabits the richly drawn main female private eye character as if she was born in Botswana rather than Philadelphia. The primary tone of the series is a gentle humor, but it spans the full range of emotions so deftly and with redolent humanity. I urge anyone with an interest in mysteries, African and real-life feminism to seek out the show on DVD and TV, and find themselves as won over as I am by its uniqueness and charms that makes one wish, after watching its last episode, that it continued far longer.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2014
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