Why does HBO's adaptation of the hit novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency seem so amazing?
Here's one reason: It offers a nuanced, compelling tale about Africa that doesn't center on famine, AIDS, violent warlords, child soldiers, genocide or any other heart-tugging tragedy.
Viewers get a vision of Africa through new eyes, re-creating the sweet, quirky tale of Precious Ramotswe — a smart, good-natured woman who turns a small inheritance left her by a departed, doting dad into the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana, in southern Africa.
Along the way, the premium cable channel thwarts every accepted piece of wisdom about what works on television. Which makes me really want to see this show succeed.
First great move: casting Grammy-winning R&B singer Jill Scott as Ramotswe, a woman of, shall we say, generous proportions who has little in common with the waifs and malnourished women topping most big-time TV shows these days.
Fealty to Alexander McCall Smith's nine novels ensures there's no attempt to make the cast more acceptable to American audiences by inserting white characters. And the two-hour movie that starts this 13-episode journey tonight at 8 is most affecting when distilling the oddball nature of Ramotswe's corner of Botswana.
Eager to succeed, Scott's Ramotswe tests the fidelity of a client's husband by inadvertently picking him up in a bar; later, a car mechanic smitten with her needs help dealing with a dangerous gangster connected to the disappearance of a little boy.
Through it all, Ramotswe's cadre of helpers — eccentric secretary Mma Makutsi, mechanic J.L.B. Matekoni and self-assured hairdresser/neighbor B.K. — act as an African Scooby gang of sorts, helping Ramotswe find missing dogs, wayward crocodiles and fraudulent dentists in the bustling tangle of everyday life in southern Africa.
Filmed in Botswana, the series has a size and scope few others can match.