Reason #2080 why I love me some HBO: On Sunday, the cable station that kept me mesmerized with The Wire, The Sopranos, Entourage, and Sex In The City, is debuting its latest series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Based on the best-selling novels by Alexander McCall Smith, the series chronicles the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, an African private eye who helps her fellow townspeople solve mysteries. Jill Scott, who’s expecting her first brown baby, stars. Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose is Scott’s sidekick. Idris Elba is in the first two-hour episode. It’s filmed in its entirety in Botswana. And reviews of the series have been kinda the fire.
From Entertainment Weekly reviewer Ken Tucker:
The American singer [Jill] Scott plays Precious Ramotswe, who, having split from an abusive husband, decides to open up a one-woman detective agency in the small, dusty neighborhood of Gaborone. She doesn’t earn much money, but then, neither does anyone around her, and that doesn’t stop them from having problems (infidelity, fraud) that need solving. She’s not just a businesswoman, she says, she’s there to help ”the lost and the frightened.”¨ Precious hires a new assistant, Mma Makutsi (Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose, all bespectacled eyes and brainy forehead), who blinks back ¨incredulity when presented with a manual typewriter whose keys don’t all work properly.
In the series’ two-hour pilot, directed by The English Patient’s Anthony Minghella (his last project before his March 2008 death), Precious applies common sense and a ¨Sherlock Holmes-y gift of observation about both telltale clues and human nature. Scott speaks in an English without contractions; ¨it gives even her simplest sentences ”I will give you a try,” or ”I sincerely agree with that” the quiet force of wisdom.
Minghella’s direction sets the tone for the series, placing Scott’s boldly colored dresses against warm green walls and sand-brown buildings. Scott provides big love, but Big Love this ain’t: For a show set in a bustling little city, the pace is so leisurely that the low-key adventures of Precious risk becoming merely precious. (It’s a bit jarring when ¨The Wire’s Idris Elba Stringer Bell! shows up as a glowering crime boss.) Ultimately, however, the charm is disarming; No. 1 Ladies is overseen by exec producer Richard Curtis, who specializes in jaunty fare such as Love ¨ Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I’ll be interested to see whether the gentle, genial No. 1 Ladies can carve out a regular Sunday-night audience amid amazing races, ¨cold cases, and desperate housewives.
Um, I’m sold. And that’s not just because Tucker’s review is convincing; HBO has a long history of making some pretty solid, diverse must-see programming from the cable adaptation of Terry McMillan’s Disappearing Acts, to The Wire (ha’ mercy, Idris Elba, dammit!) to Spike Lee’s brilliant and elegant “When The Levees Broke,” HBO has shown it’s dedicated to bringing quality stories about, for, and by folks of color to the masses. Which says a lot in a day and age where it seems we’re more likely to elect another black president before we get another quality black flick on the big screen, or a worth-the-half-hour show on prime time TV. Hell, it’s still up in the air whether the last of the good black TV shows, Everybody Hates Chris, will be renewed. What’s that all about? What, pray tell, will my brown babies watch if the only prime time show I feel okay letting them watch, besides America’s Next Top Model, gets taken off the air? I mean, around these parts, we’re still devastated from the canceling of The Bernie Mac Show clinging to reruns and whatnot, wishing somebody would give Mac (RIP) some credit for hooking up funny, down-to-earth, loving, spot-on family fare.
Of course, the best way to send a message to networks that they should care about quality programming for and about and by black folks is to show them that, well, we care about quality programming for black folks. And we do that by tuning in. So come Sunday, March 29 at 8 p.m., I’ll be making a statement to HBO saying “thank you for caring” by watching my girl Jill and my boy Idris (!) make it do what it do on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.