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TELEVISION REVIEW

'No. 1 Ladies' is a sunny diversion

Jill Scott plays Botswanan detective Precious Ramotswe. Jill Scott plays Botswanan detective Precious Ramotswe. (Kim Bernstein)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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When you hear that a TV drama is "HBO-y," you know what that means, right? Morally challenging, R-rated, and, inevitably, bleak. As the networks and cable channels increasingly refine their brands in order to stand out from the crowd, you can pretty much turn any of their names into an adjective. A show is FX-y when it flirts with sexual promiscuity and amorality, and it's CW-y when it's a soap featuring 25-year-olds playing teenagers.

And so it's strange to say that HBO's new series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is not very HBO-y at all. Indeed, this mystery series is kind of CBS-y, with some of the old-school crime-solving charm of "The Mentalist." About an astute woman who investigates cheating husbands and missing dogs, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" - with an endearing lead performance by Jill Scott - is actually kind of heart-warming.

Oh right - and this HBO series, which premieres Sunday night at 8, is very Travel Channel-y, too. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is set and filmed in Botswana, in the city of Gaborone, and it plays out like a sunny love letter to a country that, despite the political chaos and famine of its neighbors, has remained relatively stable. Just as the series defies our expectations of HBO, it challenges our assumptions about Africa as the home of only bad news. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" is all about honoring the simplicity and politesse of the Botswanans we meet, including Scott's Precious Ramotswe, her secretary, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), and JBL Matekoni (Lucian Msamati), a mechanic who is smitten with Precious.

Based on the series of books by Alexander McCall Smith, the show has an enormous amount of talent and clout behind it. The two-hour (and slightly overlong) premiere was directed by the late Anthony Minghella, who co-wrote it with "Love Actually" writer-director Richard Curtis. They are the executive producers of the series, along with the late Sydney Pollack and Bob and Harvey Weinstein. And yet there's something modest about the show's ambitions, as it avoids big themes and moral gray areas in favor of little kooky vignettes and happy resolutions. I can't say you'll want to follow "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" religiously, like so many other HBO efforts, but it is an easy-to-like distraction.

Scott's Precious is a divorcee whose longtime dream of being a detective comes true after an inheritance from her beloved father. It's corny, but Precious deeply wants to help her fellow Botswanans, especially after having survived an abusive marriage. She doesn't have policing experience, but she is blessed with acute observational skills, a savvy take on human nature, and a sense of justice. With little-girlish enthusiasm and naivete, she rents an office in a shopping center, hires the eccentric Grace, and waits for business to pick up, which, eventually, it does.

Scott, an American R&B singer, seems born to play this character. She's just a natural, and she makes it easy to root for Precious as she looks for lost children and faces off with organized crime. She gives us a heroine of great humor and heart, but she never lets Precious's desire to help others seem sanctimonious. And Rose is dear as her assistant, Grace, a socially awkward creature who is as loyal as she is clueless. "That man is very much like a woman," Grace comments about a gay hairdresser in a nearby storefront.

The challenge for "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" writers will be to develop the characters despite the show's light-hearted genre atmosphere. If the writers can add some serial intrigue and let Scott reveal more of her dramatic potential, the show could evolve into something as poignant as its African landscape.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY Starring: Jill Scott, Anika Noni Rose, Lucian Msamati, Desmond Dube

On: HBO

Time: Sunday night, 8-10

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