Calculated Risk on Underemployment
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Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency Blogging

John Jurgenson:

HBO Tries No Sex, New City - HBO, the cable network known for anguished mobsters and sexy Manhattanites, is about to introduce an unlikely new character: a cheery private eye named Precious who operates out of Africa. She's the star of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," premiering March 29. Aimed at a family audience, it's HBO's only series airing at 8 p.m., and is part of the network's efforts to overhaul its post-"Sopranos" identity. Key to HBO's bet on "No. 1 Ladies" was its lead actress, R&B singer Jill Scott, and the group of Hollywood veterans who steered the project, including producer Harvey Weinstein and filmmakers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack. Messrs. Minghella and Pollack died last year, shortly after the show's two-hour pilot was shot.

. Weinstein says the series's portrait of African life is unusual. "[It] has nothing to do with AIDS or pestilence or problems," he says. "Of everything I've ever done in this industry, nothing makes me prouder than this television show, of all things." In other TV crime procedurals, investigators use forensic evidence, mental tricks or muscle to collar bad guys. Precious relies on intuition, and often sits quietly sipping tea as she puzzles over philandering husbands and missing children in Botswana. In one episode, Precious juggles the cases of a lost dog, a "definitely disturbed dentist" and a deacon who vanishes during a river baptism. Ms. Scott says, "If I put myself in the viewer's place it would take me a moment to calm down" and adjust to the show's pace...

Nancy Smith:

TV Review: 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' - Much has been made of the fact that HBO's new series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (Sundays, 8 to 10 p.m. EDT this week and from 8 to 9 thereafter) is not like the sexy, edgy programming that made the network famous. Private investigator Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) and her friends don't use four-letter words or sleep around, and there are no exploding heads or other body parts gushing blood. The world Precious inhabits is so quaintly graceful that women still want to wear dresses. In the first five hours of the series, in fact, there's hardly a betrousered female to be found. It will be interesting indeed to see whether all of the network's core viewers can reprogram minds accustomed to gut-churning roller coasters and instead enjoy a teacup ride.

More interesting still is the setting, which is the African nation of Botswana. Not the "Out of Africa" sort of Africa, as seen by whites, with the proverbial colorful cast of thousands in the background. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" revolves around the everyday lives of black Africans. Undoubtedly, they are some of the luckier ones. As the former British protectorate of Bechuanaland, tucked between South Africa and Namibia, Botswana was a backwater in the best sense of the word. It made a smooth transition to democracy and even today retains a measure of old civilities that have been all but abandoned in the West. Many customs reflect a British connection -- boys named Wellington, English still ripe with words like "rascals," and a familiarity with Miss Marple. Yet the citizens of Botswana, perhaps because they never felt relegated to the second-class status of a colonized people, seem to have escaped the usual post-independence scourges of dependency, corruption and chaos.

So it is that as the series opens, we hear Precious narrate the story of her upbringing by a beloved father who taught her to be brave and independent, and then willed her 180 head of cattle and a white Datsun (or atsun once the D fell off) van. With that legacy, she opens shop as the country's first female detective. "I love my country, Botswana," she says, and one way to show affection is to help people solve their problems.

Each episode finds Precious, along with a growing list of eccentric friends and clients, embroiled in several mysteries. Many -- a philandering husband, a lost dog, an insurance scam, medical fraud -- are the stuff of life anywhere. This being Africa, there are occasional clues one wouldn't find in New York -- the kind involving, say, a man-eating crocodile. Alongside enthusiastic and fantastically costumed Christian worship, witchcraft factors into some plots, as well, although when evil guys show up, they act exactly like gangsters the world over...