MASTERPIECE: LITTLE DORRIT. 9 p.m. Sunday through April 26.
I'VE HEARD it given for a truth, that as the world goes 'round, so it comes 'round again," explains a character in "Little Dorrit," a five-week miniseries that begins Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece."
"Ripped from the headlines" isn't the "Masterpiece" way, but the timing couldn't be better for this absorbing adaptation by Andrew Davies ("Bleak House") of one of Charles Dickens' less-read works.
A 19th century romance set against the background of financial disaster, "Little Dorrit" stars Claire Foy as Amy "Little" Dorrit, who's been brought up in a debtors' prison called the Marshalsea, courtesy of a father (Tom Courtenay) who's been confined there since before she was born.
Dickens' own father was held in the Marshalsea for a time, living there with family, as William Dorrit does, and he portrayed it as a world unto itself, one in which Amy's father becomes all too comfortable as its longest inhabitant, the "father of the Marshalsea."
Dickens being Dickens, there's no staying put, though. Amy, who is free to come and go, is summoned by a stern invalid, Mrs. Clennam (Judy Parfitt), and hired as a seamstress. When the old woman's son, Arthur (Matthew Macfadyen), returns from years abroad, he takes an interest in the girl known as "Little Dorrit" and in her family.
Anyone who's ever read the fine print on a credit-card statement knows there's nothing simple about interest, and Clennam's attempts to untangle William Dorrit's debts lead him down the rabbit hole to one of Dickens' most satirical creations, the Circumlocution Office.
"Oh, no, that's not the way to do it," one functionary in that patronage-padded bureaucracy tells him when he asks about Dorrit. " 'Pon my soul, you mustn't just barge in here saying you want to know, you know."
"But I do want to know, and I shall persevere until I do know," Clennam tells him.
"Upon my soul, you stick to it in a devil of a manner. Look, I can give you some forms to fill in if you like, and they'll go 'round to various departments, probably come back here from time to time, to be endorsed or countersigned. But nothing will come of it in the end, I can promise you that. You'd much better to give it up. It's what most men do."
In time, the Dorrits' circumstances do change, but their characters don't, and it's character that always counts with Dickens, who tends to redistribute the wealth accordingly.
When things fall apart, they really do fall apart.
Want to know how Bernie Madoff did it? You need only see how one Mr. Merdle (Anton Lesser) does it here, decades before Charles Ponzi's shenanigans gave Merdle's rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme a name.
With hours and hours to tell the story, Davies' adaptation is, if anything, a bit too faithful, with so many tangled subplots even those who have read the book might find themselves wandering down blind alleys now and then.
At such moments, it's best to focus on Foy and Macfadyen, whose characters' almost ridiculous goodness illuminates everything and everyone around them.
But at a time when viewers are wondering whether they'll ever reap the rewards of those hours spent with shows that may only be stringing them along, "Little Dorrit" is the closest TV has to a sure thing: a relatively short-term investment with a satisfyingly large payoff.
If you're used to thinking of HBO as the channel that made TV safe for language and nudity, then "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (8 p.m. Sunday, HBO) may feel like an odd fit.
I can't myself think of many other HBO shows I'd be willing to watch with both my mother and my kids.
But if you think of your premium-cable subscription as a subsidy for first-class television that might not get made otherwise, then it's hard to imagine this show about a Botswanan woman who uses her inheritance to open a detective agency belonging anywhere else.
Philadelphia's Jill Scott stars as Mma Precious Ramotswe, heroine of a popular series of detective novels by British author Alexander McCall Smith. Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls") plays Watson to Mma Ramotswe's Sherlock Holmes as her humorously hyper-efficient secretary, Mma Makutsi.
Sunday's two-hour premiere was the last film directed by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"), and it does as much to introduce Botswana as it does Mma Ramotswe, a character whom Scott, a Grammy winner until now better known for her music, might have been born to play.
Cozy at times as any English village mystery, Smith's stories, like the snakes he often includes, have a way of striking when one least expects.
Mysteries with bite - what could be more HBO than that? *