Drenched in sun-bright colors and the warmth of Jill Scott's beaming smile, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is feel-good television in a way that's startling from HBO, home of dark, rich stuff like The Wire and Six Feet Under. It's easy to underestimate the adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's best-selling novels about a Botswanan divorcée–turned–private investigator. We've come to associate all things bleak and gloomy with art and profundity; by these standards, the glowing cheerfulness of No. 1 Ladies would seem to render it superficial entertainment. But airy buoyancy is every bit as difficult to convey on screen as heavy despair, and just because this tale of a jolly detective is light doesn't mean it's slight.
The American singer Scott plays Precious Ramotswe, who, having split from an abusive husband, decides to open up a one-woman detective agency in the small, dusty neighborhood of Gaborone. She doesn't earn much money, but then, neither does anyone around her, and that doesn't stop them from having problems (infidelity, fraud) that need solving. She's not just a businesswoman, she says, she's there to help ''the lost and the frightened.'' Precious hires a new assistant, Mma Makutsi (Dreamgirls' Anika Noni Rose, all bespectacled eyes and brainy forehead), who blinks back incredulity when presented with a manual typewriter whose keys don't all work properly.
In the series' two-hour pilot, directed by The English Patient's Anthony Minghella (his last project before his March 2008 death), Precious applies common sense and a Sherlock Holmes-y gift of observation about both telltale clues and human nature. Scott speaks in an English without contractions; it gives even her simplest sentences ''I will give you a try,'' or ''I sincerely agree with that'' the quiet force of wisdom.
Minghella's direction sets the tone for the series, placing Scott's boldly colored dresses against warm green walls and sand-brown buildings. Scott provides big love, but Big Love this ain't: For a show set in a bustling little city, the pace is so leisurely that the low-key adventures of Precious risk becoming merely precious. (It's a bit jarring when The Wire's Idris Elba Stringer Bell! shows up as a glowering crime boss.) Ultimately, however, the charm is disarming; No. 1 Ladies is overseen by exec producer Richard Curtis, who specializes in jaunty fare such as Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. I'll be interested to see whether the gentle, genial No. 1 Ladies can carve out a regular Sunday-night audience amid amazing races, cold cases, and desperate housewives. B