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Alexander McCall Smith’s books inspired HBO’s most unexpected series ever

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: HBO’s The Casual Vacancy has us thinking about other book-to-TV adaptations.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, self-titled pilot (originally aired 3/23/2008)

HBO became television’s most daring network by producing shows unlike those the medium had ever seen before, but it burnished that reputation by producing shows unlike those HBO had ever seen before. Alexander McCall Smith’s beloved No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series didn’t seem to lend itself to an HBO adaptation, given that the network’s brand still rested on a foundation of dark antiheroes, neo-noir, and auteurist westerns. Detective Agency, which chronicles the sleuthing adventures of Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott), Botswana’s pluckiest gumshoe, doesn’t remotely fit that profile. It has crime, punishment, and human frailty, but it’s of the sort involving a client like Happy Bapetsi and a mysterious man who introduces himself as her estranged father, a case known around the agency as “The Case Of The Dubious Daddy.”


McCall Smith’s books have all the ingredients for an irresistible series. It’s hard not to fall in love with Precious, a unflappable, instinct-driven heroine, her prickly sidekick (Grace Makutsi, played by Anika Noni Rose), and JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati), a salt-of-the-earth auto mechanic with whom Precious maintains a simmering flirtation. The micro-mysteries, such as Happy and her dubious daddy, lend themselves well to an episodic structure. The biggest selling point is the setting. McCall Smith does justice to Botswana’s beauty on the page, but no words can compare to the sight of the country’s gorgeous vistas.

Director Anthony Minghella saw the cinematic potential in McCall Smith’s books and began working on a film based on the series. Minghella feared the effervescent, comedic tone might throw filmgoers for a loop, especially those familiar with his heavier work such as The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley. He took the project to HBO, who teamed with the BBC, and a television series was born, one unlike anything HBO had done before or since. Detective Agency was also a first for Botswana, as the first major television production shot on location there.


While the entire series is delightful, it never gets better than the pilot, the last project Minghella worked on before his death in 2008, less than a week before its premiere. Scott and Rose make a magnificent case-cracking duo, and both turn in hilarious, lived-in, and vulnerable performances. The bonus: a decidedly hammy turn from David Oyelowo, back before his Stateside breakthrough, who kills his few brief scenes as a philandering husband.

Availability: Available on Amazon Instant Video and HBO Go.