HBO serves up saccharine mush in "Ladies Agency"

Thu Mar 26, 2009 2:46am EDT
 
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By Andrew Wallenstein

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Here's a mystery only a detective could solve: Why would HBO, a network that specializes in edgy brilliance, green-light a series that would seem too fluffy even for Lifetime? Not even Precious Ramotswe, protagonist of its newest series, "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," could get to the bottom of this case.

Ramotswe, played by American R&B chanteuse Jill Scott, is the kindly Botswana-based gumshoe who relies on intuition to solve local crimes. While the continent provides visual splendor to "Agency," Ramotswe's methods aren't exactly a feast for the eyes: She mostly sits in the converted post office where she's set up shop and mulls her investigation over cups of tea. Think the spin-off Leslie Moonves would have ordered had he run CBS during the 1980s: "Murder She Wrote: Botswana."

If the contrast of Africa and detective work sounds like a rollicking laughfest, "Agency" isn't that. While the premise begs for broader comedic treatment, the series is a leisurely paced drama with light jokes that mostly play on its characters' convoluted rendering of the English language. "Houston, we are in the rocketship headed for the stars," notes Ramotswe's assistant Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) when the agency gets its first case. (Translation: We have liftoff.)

As Ramotswe's prim second banana, Makutsi and other supporting characters needed to be much more flamboyantly funny than written here to make up for a rather bland protagonist. Scott boasts an accent convincing enough to hide her Philadelphia roots, but her character is not nearly quirky enough a sleuth, like "Monk" or "The Mentalist," to carry a show.

"Agency" is so suffused with a sweetness and light uncharacteristic of HBO that it is tempting to chalk up the programing strategy to counterintuitive genius: With every channel chasing the gritty gravitas that is HBO's trademark, why not invade the family-friendly territory they've all vacated?

Otherwise, it's difficult to see what HBO saw in "Agency." Perhaps HBO was blinded by the sheer volume of boldface producer names that come attached to the two-hour pilot: Anthony Minghella, Richard Curtis, Sydney Pollack and Harvey Weinstein, to name a few. That kind of pedigree is justifiable means for securing a slot in the original movie category at the next Emmy Awards, but there just isn't anything in "Agency" that justifies a series order.

Perhaps splitting the check with the BBC, co-producer of "Agency" along with Weinstein Co., made it viable as a series, but therein lies a bigger question HBO needs to ask itself. "Agency" is typical of an increasing volume of programing for on which HBO is but one of multiple producing partners, and the resulting work lacks the distinctive patina that comes when the network has both hands on the creative reins. Is the cost savings that come with these co-productions worth diluting what we've come to know as a true HBO original?

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