Rufus Sewell’s eyes immediately lure you into watching Zen, the BBC series based on he popular Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin. Sewell, an actor better known for period dramas than contemporary murder mysteries, is so in the moment as the character, so unaware of the camera, that it’s like watching a documentary of a master detective at work. His exceptional acting is just one reason why I quickly fell in love with this smart, stylish, hip television series. This one of the most enjoyable and coolest mystery shows of the year.
Premiering in the U.S. this summer on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, Zen aired earlier this year on BBC One. Three 90 minute episodes based on the Zen novels comprise the first season. The producers have made a concerted effort to give Zen the look and feel of a classic 60’s detective/spy movie or TV show. Fast cars, slick dialogue, and beautiful, well tailored actors transport you to Italy and provide escape and intrigue that is addictive. Moreover, Adrian Johnston’s retro music drives home the 60’s vibe, as does the backdrop of Rome, where all three episodes were filmed on location. This may be the closest thing we get to an Ocean’s Eleven television series, it’s that well executed and zesty.
Zen has many of the hallmarks of established cop shows: The workplace banter between fellow detectives; a case or two full of intrigue; and a healthy dash of sexy romance to break up the procedural plots. Zen, the detective, is a man with a reputation for scrupulous integrity; he won’t rest until he’s confident the case is solved, even if that entails pissing off the bosses. As his chief points out in the opening minutes of the first episode, Zen isn’t good with politics. At home, Zen barely has a life. His wife left him for another man and now he’s stuck living with his mother (Catherine Spaak). You’d think mom would be more supportive of her cuckolded son, but she’s openly critical of his flaws and often sides with her estranged daughter-in-law. Sometimes brilliant, other times a bumbling, tongue-tied mess of a man; Zen is fun to watch and to root for.
The opening episode, “Vendetta,” introduces the principal characters and sets in motion story arcs that carry through the series. The Ministry of Justice calls on Zen to reopen the case of a murdered billionaire, supposedly killed by his business partner. Although the partner confessed to the crime, he’s found God and is prepared to rescind his confessions and demand a new trial. The Ministry is fearful that the convicted man will use dirt he has on the Minister (a slippery, eel-like Anthony Higgins) to secure his release. They would prefer he be found proven innocent. To the chagrin of Zen’s beleaguered commander, Moscat (Stanley Townsend), Zen starts a new investigation. While Moscar instructs him to come back with the same guilty verdict, Zen’s Ministry handler, Colonna (Ben Miles) demands that the detective make the case go the other way, otherwise Zen’s is over.Because of Zen’s nature for pissing off the wrong people, the Ministry believes they’ve found the perfect patsy. They soon learn that Zen is pretty craft and picks up on the political game rather quickly
In the squad room, Zen works with a variety of men. Vincent Riotta plays de Angelis, the only competent detective he can trust. Romizi (Sargon Yelda) is a notch above inept, more interested in running office pools over who will be the first to sleep with Tania, the chief’s gorgeous new secretary. Ed Stoppard takes some time away from playing noble characters (like in this year’s new Upstairs, Downstairs miniseries) to play Fabri, the good-looking sleaze ball who has used his family connections to climb the police ranks. Fabri openly flaunts cheating on his wife and claims to have bedded Tania. Fat chance. Tania has too much class to get involved with someone like Fabri.
Tania is portrayed by the stunning Caterina Murino.To say that Murino (best known to American audiences for her role in Casino Royale) exudes sexiness is an understatement. This fine actress and an excellent match for Sewell. Throughout the course of the series, Tania struggles through a difficult separation with her husband.She comes to trust Zen, the only decent man in the office (integrity, remember). Gradually, their friendship becomes an attraction and the attraction leads to an affair. Tania and Zen begin to fall for each other as she begins the proceedings for a divorce from her estranged husband. This love affair is the heart of this detective series, the perfect way to counter the murder and intrigue that occurs in each episode.
After successfully completing his obligation to the Ministry at the end of “Vendetta,” Zen find himself once again being asked to work for them in the second episode, “Cabal.” The death of a famous aristocrat introduces Arilleo to the shadowy underworld of the Cabal. In this episode, we learn more about Zen’s own ties to the underworld, as seen in Angelo (Garry Cooper), a foot soldier for the mob. We also get better acquainted to Nieddu (Francesco Quinn), an old police buddy of Zen’s who now works as a highly paid private investigator. Nieddu tries to lure Zen out of the political trappings of the police department, but Zen is too dedicated to the job.
By the third episode, “Ratking,” Zen’s life seems to be going off the rails. Moscat has a heart attack and a prudish, by-the-book temporary chief takes over the squad. He has lign=left it in for Zen, but must do as he’s told when the Ministry personally requests our detective to look into the kidnapping of wealthy industrialist. As Zen works around the clock to find the man before his time runs out, he must also deal with the tragic repercussions of being in love with a woman not yet divorced and her jealous husband. The end of the third episode leaves many loose ends. Alas, BBC One canceled Zen, despite respectable ratings. It’s difficult to believe that a show this stylish, interesting and flat out cool got canceled after just three episodes. I hear that Left Bank, the production company behind the show, has approached other networks. Fortunately the three episodes of season one have been released on a 2 disc DVD set.
Full of mystery, with a touch of humor, Zen is superb television, thanks primarily to Sewell’s performance. The actor wasn’t afraid to make Zen look like a cad, or a chump, or a fool as long as it fit the scene and remained true to the character. After seeing him in the role I can’t imagine anyone else playing Zen in the near future. Likewise Murino, who adds class, vulnerability and grace to the role of Tania. These two are truly one of the most charismatic and sexy couples on TV this year. Pick up the DVD or look for reruns on PBS because Zen is one of the most interesting and fulfilling shows of 2011.