Beyond its bittersweet note as one of the final projects from the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” is distinguished by an ambience that doesn’t look or sound like anything else on U.S. television. Filmed in Botswana, the two-hour premiere that launches the limited series seems at times a little too besotted with the local flora and fauna, but it’s still genial company that conveys the warming feel of curling up with a good book, thanks to the anchoring performances by Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose.
Introduced as a girl, Precious Ramotswe (Scott) has gained powers of observation and intuition from her father. After dad’s death and her experiences with an abusive husband, she moves to Botswana, where she decides to open a detective agency, predicated on her belief that “a woman knows what’s going on more than a man.”
Business is slow at first, but cases gradually begin to find their way to Precious, and she gains a strong right hand in prim, crisply efficient secretary Mma Makutsi (Rose), who has technical skills but not much regard for male bosses. Of course, the cases are as laidback — relative to the chalk-outline dramas that dominate primetime — as the African environs, from ascertaining whether a husband is cheating to figuring out if a newly arrived old gent is truly a woman’s long-lost father or merely a conniving mooch. A third, edgier plot involves a missing child and a local gangster (“The Wire’s” Idris Elba).
Directed by Minghella, this adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels is defined by its small character interactions and touches, from the way Mma Makutsi refers to the local hairdresser (“That man is very much like a woman”) to Precious’ sweet, awkward relationship with a widowed auto mechanic (Lucian Msamati), who is eager to assist her.
Similarly, there are constant reminders that this is the Third World: Animals regularly walk through shots, Mma Makutsi must get by running the office using a typewriter with no “H” (and without a phone), and Precious gets driven around in a rickety old, consonant-challenged “atsun.” Even Scott’s robust figure — sneered at in the show by some local women — screams that this is a series that resembles few others.
Subsequent episodes continue along these lines, creating a rather unusual procedural for HBO — one worth embracing less for the cases that cross Precious’ path than to simply bask in its atmosphere.
“Ladies’ Detective Agency” thus remains a small-boned construct, a series that departs from past pay TV heavyweights in possessing no more heft than a pleasant breeze. Then again, amid all the tumult in today’s busy and bustling dramas, that may be just the sort of soothing balm that could make both _BO and an acceptable swatch of its viewers _appy.