Monday, March 30, 2009

Nice, but where's my f***ing profanity?

I was an early and unlikely fan of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Normally I go in for hard-nosed crime fiction where at least five people die horribly before the denouement. In Smith's books, a very kind and overweight woman goes around solving mysteries of a less-menacing nature. People do occasionally die in these books, but never at the hands of depraved serial killers. If you like curling up with a writer like Thomas Harris, A.M. Smith takes some getting used to.

He has a finely tuned ear for West African English, which makes every character sound both simple and profound. Even the antagonists can be charming. This charm comes across very well in the HBO series of the same name, which we watched last night. The series is perfectly cast and perfectly written -- which is to say it matches the expectations of longtime readers like myself. As in the books, the pacing is pleasantly sedate, driven more by character than plot. If you have HBO, it's definitely worth a look. Smith now has 10 books in the series, each as good as the last, so we're assured of good writing for this debut season at least.

As an aside, during last night's show I was struck by another thing: This is an HBO series, but not one character referred to another as a m*****f****r. What's up with that? In fact, I'm pretty sure the writers didn't deploy any f-bombs at all, neither as verb, noun, adverb, adjective or interjection. Ditto the C-word. After years of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Deadwood, this is a jarring omission. I predict a writers' strike at some point: Think how much harder you have to work when you can't pad the dialogue with obscenity. There were places in The Wire where the only words that didn't start with F were the conjunctions.

It's kind of refreshing, but this could be a risky route for HBO. After the suits fine-tune it we may yet see Precious Ramotswe beating up hookers and cursing like a drunken sailor with Tourette syndrome. What's the point of an HBO show if its scripts could pass muster on network TV?

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