TV Series Review: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2009)
While the book series by Alexander McCall Smith, upon which this television series is based, is still going strong nearly 20 years on, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency TV series was only granted a short season of life on the small screen back in 2009. This is truly unfortunate. The series is a gentle and joyful gem. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was also a critically acclaimed quality production and a winner of a Peabody Award for television excellence.
Seven episodes, including the feature-length pilot, were filmed as a BBC/HBO coproduction. The famed British director Anthony Minghella was the man behind it all, until his sudden death in 2008. The pilot is the last film he ever made.
The Life and Adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe
Situated and filmed exclusively in Botswana, Africa, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency follows the adventures of Mma Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s first and only female detective. Upon her beloved father’s death, Precious inherits her daddy’s substantial herd of cattle, which she then sells to finance her detective dreams.
Driving her dear daddy’s old Datsun pickup, she heads to Gabarone, the capital of Botswana, to start a new life and a new business – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Her little truck breaks down on the way, and when the humble and gentle mechanic Mr. JLB Matekoni arrives to tow her to town, well, a long and lasting friendship is in the works.
Mr. JLB Matekoni, played endearingly by Lucian Msamati, promptly falls in love with this woman. And what’s not to love about Precious? She is compassionate, generous, virtuous, intelligent, creative, resourceful, passionate, sincere, stubborn, funny and wise. She’s also “traditionally built,” a big, beautiful, buxom, black woman who loves her cake and her bush tea. And she is played wonderfully by the talented and gorgeous Jill Scott.
A Full-Figured, Virtuous Woman
What a pleasure it is to see a full-figured woman as a heroine. Precious is no fat foil, playing second fiddle to some Hollywood skinny, her girth there to hoist the worthiness of the skinny lead. No, no, she is a fully rounded character with regrets and sorrows and joys, having all the emotions and complexities of a real human being, and worthy of love just as she is.
Her weight is remarked upon throughout the series, sometimes with the intent to shame and belittle, at others as terms of endearment or comic relief. She is a big black woman in a man’s job in a world that prizes lithe beauty. Her navigation of this world is what makes this so watchable (and the books so readable).
Precious is a virtuous woman, striving to do the right thing, even if it means at times tempering the truth or denying just punishment by choosing compassion and forgiveness or creating her own forms of restitution, bad deeds being countered by Precious-sanctioned good deeds so the balance is restored.
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Gumshoeing in Gabarone
Precious is also aided in her detective work by her faithful secretary Mma Grace Matsuki, played by the gifted Anika Noni Rose (Rose is the voice behind Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog). Grace is a pushy, socially inept, highly capable, meticulous perfectionist with many axes to grind, and the interplay between these two women is often very amusing and at times very touching.
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What they investigate runs the gamut from the silly and the mundane – runaway dogs, petty thefts, insurance frauds and unfaithful spouses – to the very serious, baffling and downright dangerous – kidnapped children, witch doctors, car jackings, man-eating crocodiles, ivory smugglers.
And so it goes, Precious Ratmotswe driving around Botswana in her daddy’s old Datsun, solving mysteries and mediating solutions. She eats cake, drinks a lot of tea, tails suspects, attempts to disguise herself, and seeks advice and help from Grace Matsuki, JLB Matekoni and her neighbour, the hairstylist BK (played by Desmond Dube). It’s not very edgy. It’s not cynical. In all, it’s just gentle, nice, pleasant and ever so delightful. You laugh, you cry, you smile.
A Nuanced Story From Africa
What emerges from it all, though, is a more nuanced portrait of Africa, of Botswana, than the Western news media normally mediates. Africa is more than the forlorn foil to the West. Like our heroine, it has more depth and more curves, and this series – however nicely fabricated and delightfully illusionary it may be – grants this place and its people full, messy, glorious, delightful lives.
And our precious heroine – what of her? Precious, she must decide if the grievances and mistakes of her past will shape her present and her future, if she will choose to once again be vulnerable and accept and reciprocate the love of a good, good man.
Overall, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is well worth watching, just as Alexander McCall Smith’s books are well worth reading.
Where to watch: The series is available on DVD. It is also available for streaming from HBO and Amazon Video (via HBO).
Content Note: Rated PG. Despite dealing with some serious topics like domestic violence and the usage of human body parts in “muthi” magic, there is nothing graphic in this series. Our heroine meets some nasty men, who try to forcibly intimidate her at times, but there is no seen violence or sex in this series. There is a little bit of blood from a very bad dentist doing a very bad tooth extraction, but that’s it. There is also no swearing. It’s all very virtuous.
Have you seen The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? Have you read the books? What do you think?
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2 thoughts on “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2009): A Gentle and Joyful Gem of a TV Series”
Did you ever notice that the subtext of the series is “Never trust a handsome man” ? Every handsome man we see, from Precious’ ex-husband Note Makote to the gangster who kidnapped the little boy for voodoo, is no damn good.
Oh, I don’t know that it’s never to trust a handsome face, but it’s more about never judging books by their covers. As my Granny used to say, “Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly runs clear to the bone.” And as my mother counselled me, “Marry the geek — marry the man who treats you well.” So, it’s about not getting dazzled by enticing and attractive exteriors, as Precious once did, but remembering to look deeper, finding virtues in action (or lack thereof). “By their works shall ye know them” and all that…A bit like the episode about the beauty contest…