The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency [Racialicious Review]

by Latoya Peterson

On Sunday night, I sat down to watch the premiere of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency after catching two or three specials on the making of the series while browsing HBO.

Now, let me just put this out there: I approached the series with some trepidation. First, I have never read the books. The novels, written by Alexander McCall Smith, are generally well received but knock up against some very strong views I hold about the narrative and stories of people of color. Since the voices of both women and PoCs tend to be marginalized in mainstream publishing, I try to seek out and support authors who would not otherwise be heard. So, instead of buying McCall Smith’s story about a woman from Botswana, I’d rather track down a book written by a woman from Botswana. I’ve written about this before in White Authors, Ethnic Characters and fleshed out my thoughts about times when it goes right and times when it goes wrong, but have decided to err on the side of supporting smaller authors (and smaller publishing houses).

However, the series was tempting to me from the get-go, as I love Jill Scott and like to support her work. In addition, the series is on HBO with a predominantly black cast in a time when diversity on television declines with each passing year.

Jill Scott
stars as Precious Ramotswe, a kind hearted “woman of traditional build” with a penchant for mysteries and bush tea. Anika Noni Rose is Grace Makutsi, Precious’ quirky secretary. Lucian Msamati (J. L. B.Matekoni) and Desmond Dube (B K) round out the cast.

The New York Times review notes:

[Precious Ramotswe] has longed for the independence of city life, but she loves her printed caftans and bush tea (the equivalent of coffee in a Greek cup on “Law & Order”), contentedly resisting the newly cosmopolitan pressures to remodel her body closer to a Western dictate.

The tension between tradition and modernity is rendered as broad subject and passing detail: in an early scene three young women right out of “Sex and the City: Manolos Below the Sahara” walk by the newly opened No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to ask how a woman could be a detective, and how anyone at all might go undercover who is “the size of a small elephant.”

Feminism is encroaching with the staying power of the Spartans at Attica, a reality that seems to be felt most intensely by Grace Makutsi, who serves as a secretary to Precious in a makeshift office with a manual typewriter. (Recording an outgoing answering-machine message, she plugs the agency’s areas of specialty: “Did your husband go missing? Did someone steal your cow?”)

Makutsi, played with an endearing, ramrod rigidity by Anika Noni Rose, scored 97 percent on her secretarial exam, a fact she keeps repeating, baffled as she is that all the best-paying jobs are still going to the short skirts.

I watched the episode and I was charmed by the whole series. There isn’t a lot of grit in this detective story, and it isn’t the typical hard-boiled crime drama that I tend to gravitate toward. But there was a lot to like in the series. Starting with Precious’ relationship with her father, the series features lots of love between characters, particularly in families.

The series also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. The women of the series are normally talking about the business or a case and occassionally about their personal lives. While there are some men who will eventually become part of the story line (like Precious’ abusive ex-husband, Note) the premiere spent most of its camera time on women talking to other women.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency also took some pains to dispel certain myths. I liked the interplay between the more rural area where Precious grew up and the city center where she lives now. It was interesting to see the shift in ideals and values, particularly as they mirror some of the dynamics that exist here in the U.S. (Did anyone else notice that a modern body type was not only slim, and rocking western style clothing, but also had hard relaxed hair or a weave, compared to Precious’ natural?)

The role of Precious’ weight also played a significant role in the series. Jbrotherlove remarked on twitter “watching The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on HBO. I’m disturbed by how many characters have negative comments about Jill Scott’s weight.”

It is harsh. Most of the female characters on the show do have negative things to say about Precious’ weight, though she seems unfazed by it. She often remarks “many men prefer this way.” And this is proven in the series, as Precious becomes quite the seductress, normally using her feminine wiles to coax men into assisting her. However, I am not quite sure yet how this will all pan out. I like Precious’ character because she is complex and independent. The scenes involving her abusive ex-husband, Note, hint at some of the emotional depth of the character. Yet, taking all this into consideration, I am not sure what statement – if any – the series will make about gender, though it is referred to often.

A review of the show on Kansas City.com also points out a broader criticism:

And that brings me to my qualm. For most Americans, this is the only glimpse of Africa they will see on TV all year, and such an odd vision of Africa it is. It looks like it was filmed in 1975. Watching “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” you will have no clue as to the humanitarian challenges being faced in sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana, in fact, has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, and its 1.6 million inhabitants can expect to live on average less than 34 years.

Squaring the realities of Africa against the fairy-tale Africa of “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” where the worst thing Precious and Grace were likely to stumble upon was a cheating husband, was proving surprisingly difficult for me. That is, until I had a simple four-word epiphany.

Cheating husbands spread AIDS.

So maybe the stakes weren’t as low as I’d originally thought.

I can hear that criticism. However, one of the reasons that so many of the actors signed on to the show was to display a more positive image of an African country. And, based on the way in which the topic of domestic violence was discussed, I think that a large topic like the AIDS crisis will require a few more episodes before the writers delve into that topic.

Overall, I enjoyed the show. The pacing was slow at points, and some of the plots were resolved a little too neatly. (Yeah hi – murderous crime boss selling kid bones for witchcraft, and he was immediately apprehended by the police based on a tape recorded confession? Riiiight.) Still, I have high hopes for the series. Jill Scott is wonderful in this role and the series has a lot of potential to develop into something great.

(Psst – I know we had five readers from Botswana come to the blog last month. If any of you are around, I would love to hear your thoughts on the series, especially on the casting.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=788771353 Joanne R. Pacicca

    This show is a delight. I have not enjoyed television to this extent with the exception of The Tutors ., for years. I am not big on vampires and cheating husbands, which HBO and their audience seems to make popular. I enjoy watching The Number One Ladies Detective Agency” with the teens in my house. This show is well acted and beautifully crafted. SO, it makes no sense that it has not been renewed. 2/24/2011