The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

What you're watching.
March 26 2009 5:40 PM

Just Look Away

HBO's adaptation of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Jill Scott in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Click image to expand.
Jill Scott in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Sundays at 8 p.m. ET)—a beautifully shot, marvelously soporific, sporadically irksome miniseries that reads mostly as a pretense for a glamorous working vacation—airs, as they say, not on TV but on HBO. Unlike The Wire or The Sopranos or even a befuddled effort like the short-lived John From Cincinnati, this show has no vivid artistic ambitions, only transparent status-seeking aspirations. A prestige project, it's one of the network's excursions in hounding after industry esteem and dinner-party kudos at the expense of all else.

The director is Anthony Minghella, who previously helmed the wonderful Truly Madly Deeply, the riveting Talented Mr. Ripley, the inexcusable Cold Mountain, and—second only to Shakespeare in Love as the ultimate artsy-fartsy cachet-catcher of our time—The English Patient. The executive producers are Harvey Weinstein, Sydney Pollack, and Richard Curtis, famous as the screenwriter who inflected on an innocent public such crumpets as Love Actually and HBO's The Girl in the Café (seven Emmy nominations, one Humanitas Prize). Because both Pollack and Minghella died last year, it feels boorish to disparage Detective Agency, but let's give it a shot.

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We shall begin with the matter of the source material, a dull series of middlebrow novels churned out by one Alexander McCall Smith. The most glaring of the many problems with the Detective Agency novels—or at least with the first of them, which is all I had the stamina to take—is that they are not detective novels. Because they concern the workings of a private investigator's office in Gaborone, Botswana, you might open the book with the idea that the heroine, Precious Ramotswe, will solve some proper mysteries, like Miss Marple with a headtie instead of a cloche.

Silly you. Ramotswe never takes a case that would tax Encyclopedia Brown. Hacking through the highly prosaic prose of the eponymous first installment, you find her accepting perhaps half a dozen major cases and developing a mildly clever way of resolving each. It's not about who done it but about how to catch 'em—exposing an adulterous husband by enticing him home, stealing a stolen car on behalf of its rightful owner—and the protagonist's expertise is not in deduction but in perception. She's The Mentalist with a different accent. The tag line for the show is, "Never underestimate a woman's intuition." Meanwhile, the rear cover of the tie-in edition boasts that more than 7 million readers have discovered the book. Can 7 million readers be wrong? Aren't they usually?

The novel features a lot of business about Ramotswe—a size 22, a natural nurturer, a mechanical earth-mother archetype—attending to her pot of redbush tea. The show picks up on this and, like the book, functions itself as a kind of tea cozy. On-screen, R&B singer Jill Scott reports for brewing duty in her first starring role. Considering that her lines include, "I want to do good with the time God has given me," she's perfectly fine. There exists a perennial complaint about the dearth of good parts for black actors in mainstream entertainment, and Detective Agency, to its credit, gets halfway toward remedying this imbalance; the casting agents offered a cornucopia of bad parts to black actors. Witness Anika Noni Rose, unsung for her excellence as the third of Bill Condon's Dreamgirls, doing what she can in the role of Ramotswe's secretary, a caricature of an uptight prig. I bailed on the show after its fourth hour and thus will never catch the inevitable scene where she pulls off her glasses and takes down her hair.

What does the show have to say about blackness? Nothing you need to hear. Where the book, consistently tepid, forgoes outright exoticism, the show dives headlong into a thoughtless brand of Africanism, presenting Ramotswe as not just an earth mother but a global mammy, just slightly. Though the book is primarily set in a city, a montage near the beginning of the miniseries gives us a lot of rhinos and giraffes and elephants, as if this were The Jungle Book's India or Busch Gardens' Dark Continent. This doesn't feel mindless, just unmindful, and the best way to honor its late creators is to look away from it.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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