Thursday, April 2, 2009


Another HBO series that makes network TV seem obsolete.

I never read the books this one’s based on, though I heard good things from friends who have. But there were definitely some things about the two-hour pilot that might have been done better, or at least differently.

Like the broad humor that sometimes is reminiscent of old style sitcom playing-to-the-lowest-common-denominator type of stuff, or the sanitized background and setting that eliminates anything that might turn an audience away (not just deep poverty and deprivation and the things that go along with all that, there weren’t even any flies in the pilot as far as I could tell), etc.

But all this seemed pretty deliberate, and the ensemble cast is terrific, and the main stars—Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose—are a delight to watch, even when they’re deliberately over the top they’re able to make it believable thanks to the magnitude of their talent and commitment, and I would assume the direction of Anthony Minghella (the pilot was the last thing he directed before he died).

Jill Scott, the singer (and songwriter) is a revelation. She is the star of the show, the number one lady detective, and like a true star she carries the entire two-hour pilot like it doesn’t weigh more than a feather. She is described by various people in the show as “fat”—but on her it’s a compliment, she couldn’t be more attractive in every way.

She and her co-star, Anika Noni Rose, are the reasons I tuned in in the first place. Rose is one of my favorite actresses (she just about stole DREAMGIRLS) and Scott is one of my favorite music makers. To see them playing native Africans (the show is set in Botswana) and seeming as comfortable as if they were born there (I have no idea how accurate their accents were, but they made their accented English and the characters’ native tongue sound convincing) was impressive.

The arc of the show was a little messy for me, some things seemed a little farfetched or too easily resolved, which I tend to blame on the writer (or more accurately adapter). But other parts were delightfully satisfying either as comedy or drama. I laughed several times out loud, and I got teary eyed at other times, even though I could see right through the obvious devices being used to elicit those responses. That’s because Scott and Rose and the rest of the cast were so good at making even the most obvious and/or absurd moments real.

It’ll be interesting to see where the show goes. This first episode was more like a film, everything wrapped up nicely at the end. Which didn’t leave much for future resolution, more like old mainstream TV sitcoms and even some dramas than more recent mainstream and HBO and other cable series, where we are enticed into sticking to a show to see how various story lines work out.

But it’s entertainment first, and for this viewer the pilot was entirely entertaining. The show also looks like it will attempt to make some points about some of the more challenging aspects of life in Botswana, and by extension, in much of sub-Saharan Africa. And just to watch a show set in any underdeveloped country, let alone Southern African, is not just a first, but feels overdue and necessary.

I couldn’t help but think of our president’s father (though he came from further North on that continent) and African relatives. And how finally fiction TV is catching up with documentary and news TV in terms of globalization and how we are all interconnected and share so much more in common than ever before.

Now someone’s got to find a way to write a series set in the Middle East that balances perspectives and experiences. Wouldn’t that be right on time.

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