It's taken a long time for Alexander McCall Smith's beloved heroine (and Botswana's only lady detective) Precious Ramotswe to make it to television.  Two years ago, the late Anthony Minghella took American chanteuse Jill Scott to Botswana and directed her in a two-hour movie version of Smith's novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, as adapted by Richard Curtis and co-financed by HBO and the BBC.  Now the movie is finally airing tonight at 8 pm Eastern on HBO as a pilot for a limited-run series; UK audiences saw the movie last year, and the series episodes began airing there a couple of weeks ago.

HBO is certainly a strange place for the series, given its genteel family-friendliness.  The tone, pacing, and emphasis on heavenly rural scenery practically scream Hallmark Channel.  But if HBO audiences can slow down enough for an original series without profanity, nudity, weed, lesbians, or any of the other trappings of its usual offerings, they'll find themselves smiling at this love letter to Africa and its disappearing traditions.

Mma Ramotswe, a "traditionally built" woman who believes most problems can be solved with a cup of bush tea, moves after the death of her father to the outskirts of Gabarone and opens a detective agency.  She's convinced that she can dispense in the city the same kind of wise village justice that she helped her father dole out when she was a girl.  And the poignancy of this adaptation derives from the understated contrast between the modern, western fashions and lifestyles that have come to dominate Gabarone, and Mma Ramotswe's unswerving belief in the simplicity of the virtues of her upbringing.  Although she has reason to be cynical about human nature — she was abused by her former husband, a smooth-talking trumpet player — she starts her unique business with optimism and pluck, not because she sees an opportunity in Gabarone's sordid side, but because she wants to cleanse beautiful Botswana of all fraud and deceit unfitting to its majesty.

While she waits for her first case, she hires a secretary, Grace, who takes great pride in her record score of 97 on her secretarial school exams, and strikes up friendships with JLB Maketoni, the slightly tubby owner of Speedy Motors (who promises to keep her old truck running), and BK, the hairdresser next door to her converted-post-office quarters (of whom Grace remarks, "That man is very much like a woman").  And then the cases come thick and fast, all to be recorded with colorful titles on the agency's blackboard.  There's the case of the dubious daddy, in which a young woman of means finds herself doubting that the long-lost father now living off her largesse is actually related to her.  In a cheating-husband case, Mma Ramotswe learns that perhaps she shouldn't use herself as bait to prove the man's infidelity.  And when a factory owner suspects that a worker's compensation claim for a missing finger is fishy, our heroine combines old fashioned records digging with personal knowledge of the lawyer involved to discover the truth.


The missing finger, however, connects to a darker matter: a missing boy and a bundle of witch-doctor medicine — containing human bones — that JLB Maketoni finds in a gangster's car at his shop  One of the best scenes in the episode occurs which Mma Ramotswe meets the gangster at a cake stand in a marketplace to find out where he got the medicine bundle, and sweetly informs him that his gruesome property is inside the cake he's been insolently sampling with his fingers.  The question is whether her positive outlook on justice can withstand a series' worth of encounters with the kind of folk who think nothing of menacing children to get what they want.

Fans of the light but addictive series of novels (currently standing at ten installments) will be delighted with this faithful adaptation.  But even for those who've never picked up one of the books, Minghella's loving vision of Botswana and Scott's bright, joyful portrayal of the innocent (but far from naive) Precious Ramotswe are nothing less than charming.  And the script places McCall's best lines into settings that highlight their humor and wisdom.  As the series progresses, Mma Ramotswe is sure to uncover secrets that will challenge her sunny disposition, cautiously negotiate the changes that have taken place in her developing nation, and be clumsily wooed by JLB Maketoni.  And if the retirees that form Smith's core audience can find The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency way up in the premium cable channels, they're sure to stay tuned in until the last episode.  I hope that the jaded young professionals who run across it looking for Eastbound & Down stick around, too.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

- Grace, on the antiquated tools she is asked to use: "We were told in the secretarial school about a former time, before computers, when typing was done on typewriters, and our country was called Bechuanaland, and dinosaurs roamed the earth."


- Mma Ramotswe's plan for exposing the dubious daddy, inspired by a remark from BK, involves impersonating a nurse and telling the man that his supposed daughter has had a terrible accident.  "Blood is pouring from your daughter in more than one place," according to her vivid description.

- JMB Makatoni, talking up Mma Ramotswe's detecting prowess in front of the gangster: "If someone loses some items, whatever these items are, you will find them. With your special powers."

- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is the first major production to be filmed in Botswana.  And what Minghella shows us of the country amply justifies Mma Ramotswe's reverent account of her beloved homeland.