“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” rocks

I’m not sure I can speak intelligently about The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – that’s how much I enjoyed it. It’s an HBO TV series based on the books by Alexander McCall Smith. I love it for the usual reasons:  it features well-paced stories, terrific characters and beautiful settings.

It also breaks a lot of film/TV industry rules that we talk about around here:

  • It features two female leads. Who are African. One of them is fat.
  • It’s set in Botswana. Not New York City, Los Angeles, Miami or even London.
  • There are no white people in the series. Not even in the background.
  • While everyone speaks English for the target demographic’s benefit, the language is peppered with Setswana greetings and terms of address, the meanings of which a viewer must figure out for herself. It’s not difficult.

In the first episode, Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) inherits many cattle from her father, making her a rich woman. She sells them and uses the money to start a business called The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. She hires a secretary, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), and slowly they begin to find clients and solve mysteries for them. They’re always working on several cases at once, which makes it more interesting (to me) than your traditional mystery show.

These are two very different women. Mma* Ramotswe is gentle, sympathetic and financially privileged. Mma Makutsi is uptight, sometimes harsh, and struggling to make ends meet. It becomes apparent early on that Mma Ramotswe would undercharge clients and overspend income, so Mma Makutsi takes charge of the practical side of running a business while Mma Ramotswe excels at solving crimes. They become true friends over the course of the series, coming to one another’s aid no matter what it takes and sharing their personal troubles (but never dwelling on them – it’s not in their nature).

Mma Ramotswe is a big lady. Fat, by western standards. Alexander McCall Smith coined the term “traditionally built” to convey to western readers that in Africa, Mma Ramotswe’s build used to be considered the model for female beauty. Many men still prefer her build to that of the slender girls influenced by western media.

Mma Ramotswe has a love story arc that I really enjoyed, perhaps because it’s so simple and straightforward, and because both characters won my affection independently. She also experienced an abusive first marriage and lost a baby because of it, but unlike your usual “ninja plutonium smugglers murdered his wife” trope to create Big Huge Drama and show us how our noble protagonist has suffered, this backstory is simply a part of who Mma Ramotswe is. It’s the type of tragedy that many viewers can relate to, in whole or in part.

As I mentioned, Mma Makutsi is uptight, but with reason. She’s been passed over for many jobs that went to cuter but less qualified women. She’s the sole supporter of herself and her brother, who has AIDS. While she may expect too much of others, she also expects too much of herself. But she’s incredibly loyal, dependable and self-sacrificing – and willing to learn from her mistakes when she judges people too harshly. As her job duties expand into helping with investigations, she receives a new title: “Assistant Detective.”

It has been suggested that McCall Smith idealizes Botswana in his novels, but he believes it really is a special place full of good-hearted people with values. Even if he is idealizing, so do we idealize (or at least glamorize) Los Angeles, NYC and all the other cities in which the US typically sets TV shows. Mma Ramotswe lives and works in Gabarone, a little town with a fairly modern infrastructure, but none of the cold hustle bustle of North American urban centers. There are no cell phones. There is an orphanage – based on a real life “children’s village” – for those children who have lost so many relatives to AIDS that there is no extended family left to care for them. There is an ethical diamond trade Botswana is using to develop itself in ways that will benefit its people rather than just its economy. We are dumped into Botswana’s culture and traditions without a special road map for westerners, and in finding our way around, we become enriched.

I haven’t even touched on the other characters, all of whom are wonderfully drawn, or the humor, which is considerable. I could go on for thousands of words about this show, but I’ll stop here.

*Mma is a Setswana term of address, similar to Madam or Ms.


  1. Julie says

    I love these books (have most of them, lost track, and now have to find the more recent books)–but never realized they were ever marketed as young adult books. They weren’t as far as I could see, in my local Borders or used book store. There are children in the series–you have GOT to write an article about the woman who runs the local orphanage! Wow, she’s amazing.

    The language is deceptively gentle, and the mysteries, although they’re charming, most of them do contend with the reality of life. The women and men who come to Mma Ramotswe feel like genuine human beings. Their problems are not hypermagnified as in most western mysteries. It is a wonderful series.

    I’ve heard mixed reviewed of the TV series. I’ll have to check it out for myself!

  2. says

    Hmm, I know I saw them shelved in YA somewhere, and I haven’t read them myself. Borders online does call it “popular fiction”, so I’ll edit the post.

    I definitely plan on reading the books now.

  3. eccentricyoruba says

    i thoroughly enjoyed this TV series though i have been told by some friends from Botswana that there were some inaccuracies with the actors’ accents and the portrayal of Gaborone. there were also some complaints due to most of the actors being either American or South African. despite these little problems the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is highly enjoyable! i wish there’ll be a second season. and i must add that i loved Grace Makutsi’s character.

  4. says

    Julie, re: the woman who runs the orphanage – she hasn’t been featured much in the series so far. Amazingly, she’s one of the characters the author based on a real person, and that gets discussed in the DVD extras. Perhaps we’ll see more of her in S2, or maybe I’ll end up reading and reviewing the books.

    eccentricyoruba, thanks for sharing that. I’m not surprised to hear some mistakes have been made. I think the show is wonderful overall, but I imagine there was some pressure to cast known actors and that probably led to the complaints you’re describing (i.e., if they’d hired actors from Botswanan, the accents would have been genuine, thus solving both problems).

  5. Robin says

    I don’t read a lot of straight-up mysteries, but I do enjoy watching them on TV. I’ll have to take a look the next time it’s on.

  6. Lindsey says

    I hadn’t heard of this series at all, but now I definitely want to check it out. HBO has produced a lot of TV I’ve enjoyed.

  7. says

    Did anyone else find the characters (especially in the movie) to be off-puttingly one-dimensional and stereotypical? Does the hairdresser always have to be flamboyantly gay? (And could they really get away with that in Botswana?)

  8. says

    I just watched the DVD extras, and McCall Smith talked about how there is no theater or film in Botswana, but when they announced casting calls, actors came from all over the place. So it may be there really weren’t any Botswana actors from which to choose? I’m not trying to make excuses – as we said, these are minor mistakes compared to the ones most shows make.

  9. Gloria says

    I have also read that this series presents a romanticized view of Botswana, but I agree totally with the writer who notes that Hollywood hardly ever portrays “reality” or even tries – advertisers have mostly correctly noticed that few people choose actual reality for their entertainment.

    More importantly, this series – both the television series and the books – engenders pure affection for the people of Botswana. We are usually manipulated to admire the animals of Africa or encouraged to view the people mainly as victims of disease, poverty, and corrupt political systems.

    And lastly, this is the only time I can say that I have adored both the books and the film of any title. Perhaps it’s because they are somewhat different from but complement one another: where the books are quiet, incredibly witty, almost a comedy of manners, the film version is gently animated, colours the books’ story lines and has given a rich life to the characters. I want more.

  10. says

    More importantly, this series – both the television series and the books – engenders pure affection for the people of Botswana. We are usually manipulated to admire the animals of Africa or encouraged to view the people mainly as victims of disease, poverty, and corrupt political systems.

    YES. This is something I very much wanted to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words. Especially the part about us being encouraged to view Africans as victims – as objects. We open our wallets to “Feed the World” not because we’ve been made to empathize with these “victims” but because it’ll make us feel good about ourselves.

    McCall Smith is simply telling a story of some fully human beings who live in – and love – Botswana.

  11. says

    I just watched the pilot, thanks to this post I remembered. I’m glad I did. This series is strange: in part it feels like a series from the past with all the themes about loyalty and morality and good and evil, and with basically happy people and not tortured anti-heroes. At the same time, despite the humor, there are dark themes.

    What do you think of the accents of the actors? Should they have spoken flawless English as a “pretend language”, i.e. they’re not really speaking English, but it sounds to us as if they were? As it is, I’m not quite sure why they are speaking English in the series and not just Setswana.

    But yeah, I enjoyed the pilot tremendously.

    • says

      What do you think of the accents of the actors?

      I have no idea whether they sound authentic – online, some people seem to think so, but others disagree.

      Should they have spoken flawless English as a “pretend language”, i.e. they’re not really speaking English, but it sounds to us as if they were?

      I’m not sure what you’re asking here? If I read you correctly, I thought that *was* what they were doing – that I should assume the characters were speaking Setswana, but as a courtesy to the English-speaking target audience, movie magic was rendering it in English. That’s a pretty common convention in movies set in foreign countries but intended for a US audience.

      • says

        Well, if they were speaking Setswana, am I to take from the accent that they speak Setswana with an accent?

        To me, I can speak German flawlessly or English with a (slight) accent. Since we in Germany dub films, I’m used to this marking: flawless German is English (for Hollywood movies); accented German means the character speaks accented English. That’s why I thought if the characters here were speaking (flawless) Setswana, then shouldn’t the English be flawless, as well?

        • says

          In US films for US audiences, we use foreign-accented English to indicate we should imagine the person is actually speaking a foreign language. For example, a German character talking to other Germans would speak English with a German accent (except, if it’s not that long, sometimes they’ll speak German and expect the English-speaking audience to read the subtitles). So the Setswana accent on English means to me that they’re supposed to be speaking Setswana.

          • says

            Cool. Even though I do watch almost everything I can in its original language, I never noticed that difference. Interesting, and also good to know that this wouldn’t even seem like a problem for the audience here.


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