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.