The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
HBO; Sundays @ 8 & 10 p.m.
March 29-May 3

Here’s a word you don’t often hear about an HBO series: heartwarming.

The lightness of tone and family-friendliness of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency seem like a paradigm shift in the 9 p.m. Sunday slot previously occupied by such unsentimental hits as Big Love, True Blood and The Sopranos.

But once you make the adjustment (it doesn’t take long), this six-part miniseries, based on the bestselling detective novels set in Botswana by Alexander McCall Smith, presents a picture that is far more nuanced and satisfying than anything we normally see about Africa on American TV, maybe ever.

This series also has the distinction of being the final project of Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning director of The English Patient who died unexpectedly last year. Minghella’s absence may complicate efforts to keep this show alive beyond its initial six-episode run. Which is a shame, because this is a charming addition to the HBO lineup that deserves a longer shelf life.

Soul singer Jill Scott stars as Precious Ramotswe (commonly addressed with the courtesy title Mma Ramotswe), raised by her farmer daddy to be smart, savvy and self-sufficient until the day he dies and leaves her enough wealth in livestock to sell it at auction and move to the capital city of Gaborone.

Armed with the book Principles of Investigation, Mma Ramotswe opens a ramshackle detective agency with the help of two new friends: BK (Desmond Dube), a gay hairstylist whose business is right next door; and JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati), a widower and car mechanic who falls in love with Mma Ramotswe, something she knows and politely avoids.

Her closest partner in crime-solving is initially the most problematic. Mma Grace Makutsi, played by Anika Noni Rose of Dreamgirls and The Starter Wife, marches into the office soon after it opens and practically demands the job of secretary. After all, she finished with a record 97 percent average at secretarial school, so who would dare not hire her?

Mma Ramotswe does, and the comic fireworks begin. With the exception of some very poignant moments involving her, any time Makutsi is on the screen, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a comedy. With her strident voice and diction (her rolled Rs are a scream), her prim dress, stern looks and facial twitches, she is a Botswanan female version of Barney Fifeand like Don Knotts’ classic deputy, she is good-hearted underneath all the bluster.

Scott and Rose parry their characters’ power face-offs beautifully. Ramotswe may possess the leadership skills necessary to rein in her secretary when she becomes overexcited, but she lacks business sense and often has to subtly divert an eye toward the outer office during a client meeting to see what price Makutsi is mouthing and spastically hand-signaling for their services.

Rose almost steals the show from everybody, but the cast is just too good. And nobody, but nobody, steals the show from Jill Scott. When the series’ creators went casting for a sexy plus-sized actress to play Ramotswe (“I’m of traditional build, and many men like it that way,” Ramotswe says), they struck gold.

To prepare for her role, Scott obviously went through rigorous dialect coaching and immersed herself in the culture. Her contagious smile was made for the character who aims to spread a little happiness (and flirt a little bit when she needs to), and Ramotswe’s compassion comes to Scott just as naturally.

And yes, she sings. Ten minutes into the first episode, she lets loose with an African song at a funeral, and from then on, she owns you.

As a detective, Ramotswe’s sense of justice doesn’t automatically lead her to pursue criminal justice, even when it may be warranted. As she tells one client, played by CCH Pounder in the fourth episode: “[Botswanans] have an older tradition. If the wrongdoer is truly sorry for what he’s done, the person he’s harmed will try to forgive him.”

Most of her cases are about familiesmissing loved ones and suspicious activities sparked by jealousy. When she’s not seeking clues, clumsily at times (she goes back to the Principles of Investigation book quite often), it seems she’s playing family counselor, willing to keep the authorities out of the loop if she feels a greater good will be achieved some other way. Forcing a wrongdoer to give money to the local orphanage is one of her favorite forms of ensuring restitution.

So there is comedy, and a moral at the end of the story, and a two-woman detective team that lists their cases on a blackboard with titles that could have come from a corny American detective novel (courtesy of Mma Makutsi: “The Case of the Dubious Daddy”). It’s all very charming, and sometimes uplifting, but there are more serious layers that reveal themselves after the relatively lightweight two-hour premiere on March 29. (Back episodes are available on HBO On Demand.)

Ramotswe revisits the pain of miscarrying a child because of a beating she received from a no-good ex-husband. Makutsi deals with a common family health crisis in Botswana, which has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Still, the show, like the books, focuses on the positive aspects of Botswana, and that’s one of the things that makes it so refreshing. So while the subject of AIDS is not dwelled upon, it’s not ignored, either. It doesn’t take long for a viewer to realize that there are an awful lot of children at the town orphanage.

It’ll be a shame if this project isn’t continued; the scenery and art direction alone might make non-Africans jealous. As Ramotswe drives from job to job in her rickety white truck, down long stretches of road with no traffic, past giraffes and wild cats roaming under a pastel-yellow sky, you feel like this is a place you wouldn’t mind making your TV home for a good long while.