‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,’ ‘The Unusuals,’ and TV’s Obsession With Murder

As a kickoff to summer, I decided to finish up The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, HBO’s adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith’s series of a Botswanan female detective named Precious Ramotswe starring Jill Scott. It’s a totally charming show, and both its tone and content are incredibly different from anything else on television, which makes me particularly sorry that it never got the second season. Precious is neither an anti-hero nor your standard cop with a dark secret—she’s a profoundly nice woman with a streak of steel she acquired during an abusive marriage—and most of the people around her, from her rigid secretary to the hairdresser who refers her clients are also pleasant and kind. The bad people she encounters aren’t great villains. Instead, they’re often petty, weak, or angry, and taking it out on the people around them. And perhaps most importantly, her cases are similarly low-key.

The obsession with murder on American crime shows makes sense for a lot of reasons. Murder and rape, the other pop culture standby, are the crimes we take most seriously: they grab an audience’s attention and lend a sense of urgency to an episode. Murders provide opportunities to whip out the kind of high-tech wizardry that works so well as television transitions, whether it’s a medical examiner explaining something routine to Law & Order detectives, or the geniuses playing with awesome-looking toys on Bones. It also provides an excuse for harsh and theoretically exciting interrogations. And has become almost universally true in both prestige and network drama, there’s a consensus that we reach a truer understanding of humanity by venturing through the darkness rather than by heading towards the light. We’re more interested in divining the motivations of the most depraved people among us than exploring saints or simply good people who maintain from day to day.

This struck me because, despite their wildly differing locales, main characters, and relationships to the American cop show tradition (in one marvelous sequence in Ladies’ Detective Agency, the stylist, who is driving Precious’s secretary Grace, says how pleased he is that they’re bickering because it means they’re living up to trope), the show that most reminds me of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is The Unusuals. A short-lived ABC cop show with a ludicrously good cast, including Jeremy Renner, Amber Tamblyn, Adam Goldberg and Harold Perrineau, The Unusuals was distinctive among its network brethren in that that the detectives weren’t always solving murders. Yes, there was an episode where Goldberg and Perrineau’s characters took over an underground murder store as a sting operation and faced a quandary when one of their clients wanted to kill her abusive cop husband. But a lot of the time, the characters were rounding up a one-man band on a nuisance charge, solving a crime spree motivated by the medical bills of an old-school hood, or tracking down a reported zombie that turned out to be a man with Alzheimer’s who had escaped from a nursing home. These were absolutely smaller stories, but they could be beautifully written, revealing of a whole range of life beyond New Yorkers with their heads bashed in or their hearts shot out.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency worked that way by design. As detectives, Precious and Grace were guaranteed to get cases that either didn’t rise to the level of police attention or didn’t concern strict illegality. Watching Precious track down the records that prove a lawyer is committing insurance fraud to help fund an orphanage, or Grace investigate beauty contest candidates for their integrity (an assignment that tests her jealousy and sense of self) is charming and a much more wide-ranging perspective on Botswana than it would be if she was simply another tough cop. I’ve written that we might have an anti-hero glut on television. If we turn away from the old stand-bys, it might be nice to spend time with people who are pleasant rather than saints—and with scenarios that explore our more frequently unleashed petty impulses rather than our mostly-contained dark ones.