'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'

Empty

Here's a mystery only a detective could solve: Why would HBO, a network that specializes in edgy brilliance, greenlight a series that would seem too fluffy even for Lifetime? Not even Precious Ramotswe, protagonist of its newest series, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," could get to the bottom of this case.

Ramotswe, played by American R&B chanteuse Jill Scott, is a kindly Botswana-based gumshoe who relies on intuition to solve local crimes. While the continent provides visual splendor to "Agency," Ramotswe's methods aren't exactly a feast for the eyes: She mostly sits in a converted post office and mulls her investigations over tea. Think the spinoff Leslie Moonves would have ordered had he run CBS during the 1980s: "Murder She Wrote: Botswana."

If the contrast of Africa and detective work sounds like a rollicking laughfest, "Agency" isn't that. While the premise begs a broader comedic treatment, the series is a leisurely paced drama with light jokes that mostly play on its characters' convoluted rendering of the English language. "Houston, we are in the rocketship headed for the stars," notes Ramotswe's assistant, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose), when the agency gets its first case. (Translation: We have liftoff.)

As Ramotswe's prim second banana, Makutsi and other supporting characters need to be much more flamboyantly funny than written here to make up for a rather bland protagonist. Scott boasts a convincing enough accent, but her character is not nearly quirky enough a sleuth to carry a show.

"Agency" is so suffused with a sweetness and light uncharacteristic of HBO that it is tempting to chalk up the programming strategy to counterintuitive genius: With every other channel chasing the gritty gravitas that is HBO's trademark, why not invade the family-friendly territory they've vacated?

Otherwise, it's difficult to see what HBO saw in "Agency." Perhaps it was blinded by the volume of boldface producer names that come attached to the two-hour pilot: Anthony Minghella, Richard Curtis, Sydney Pollack and Harvey Weinstein, to name a few. That pedigree is a justifiable means for securing a slot in the original movie category at the next Emmys, but there isn't anything here that justifies a series order.

Perhaps splitting the check with the BBC, co-producer of "Agency" along with the Weinstein Co., made it viable as a series, but therein lies a bigger question HBO needs to ask itself. "Agency" is typical of an increasing volume of programming on which HBO is but one of multiple producing partners, and the resulting work lacks the distinctive patina that comes when the network has both hands on the creative reins. Is the cost savings worth diluting what we've come to know as a true HBO original? (partialdiff)
comments powered by Disqus