Friday, April 10, 2009

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

I love this show! Of course, I’ve only seen two episodes, but the writing is good, the acting is great and the setting, Botswana, opens a window to a part of the world I’ve never been and know practically nothing about.

I was alerted to its premier on HBO by Aaron Barnhart’s review in the Kansas City Star. Here’s a letter I wrote to him after I watched the first episode:

I sure do share your delight in this show. It's quite heartwarming. I'm writing to point out a couple of things you might have missed.

It is true that the show probably gives us a false sense of life in Botswana. Doesn't TV give us a false sense of life everywhere? But it's not true that it ignores the HIV crisis. Rather, it places HIV in the background of the characters' lives. For example, the slick lawyer (“Friendly”) compares the large turnout for the funeral of Precious's father with the scanty attendance at those who die of “disease,” a reference I think to AIDS and social ostracism. More overtly, the fellow running the insurance scam has been giving the money to an orphanage, home to many children who have lost their parents to "a terrible disease." Obviously, HIV is on everyone’s mind.

I congratulate you on (finally) realizing that the show’s focus on male sexual infidelity encodes the threat of HIV because unfaithful husbands transmit the virus. But you missed the importance of the case about the woman who was caring for a man pretending to be her father. Women throughout Africa perform much of the work, but are not able to build wealth because what they earn is so often taken by their husbands and other male relatives. Their poverty may part of what makes them so vulnerable to sexually predatory men.

Finally, the show's darkest shadow was cast by repeated references to child slavery and organized crime, two grim and not unrelated topics. The show's charm, for me, lies in its ability to show us both the sunshine and the shadows of present-day Botswana.

(Barnhart wrote an email thanking me for my comments. But I was really hoping to start a conversation. Oh, well. I’ll just have to talk to you, gentle readers:

The second episode continued to approach serious topics with a light, sometimes comic touch. There’s a case involving a dentist that hinges on economic predation and another case about an unfaithful husband who meets a gruesome end. The part I found most moving was the gentle way that the script deepens our sense of the plight of Grace Makutsi, No. 1 secretary to the No. 1 Lady Detective. Grace not only feels humiliated as she watches less qualified but more sexually attractive women land better paying, more prestigious jobs, she is also supporting her brother, Richard, who is dying from AIDS. But don't worry. Grace is no sad faced victim, just a well-rounded, slightly comic figure.

I can hardly wait for episode three.

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