Zen, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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‘Zen’ on PBS Masterpiece Mystery

Based on the Aurelio Zen detective mysteries by Michael Dibdin
Adapted by Simon Burke
Starring Rufus Sewell, Caterina Murino and Stanley Townsend
PBS stations, Sundays, July 17, 24 and 31, 2011, 9 p.m. ET/PT

Forget about Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple. Yes, they are world-class cerebral detectives, but they are as not as eye-catching, debonair, and daring as the Italian police detective Aurelio Zen. Instead of a cozy tea, think quick morning espresso.

Based on three Zen novels created by the talented, literate writer, Michael Dibdin (1947-2007), BBC, PBS and others have produced three exciting and lavish episodes. “Vendetta” will be shown on July 17, followed by “Cabal” on July 24 and “Ratking” on July 31.

A handsome but jaded 40-ish police detective in contemporary Rome, Zen (piercing-eyed Rufus Sewell, “Middlemarch, “The Pillars of the Earth,” “The Eleventh Hour”) navigates his way around the corrupt agendas of his higher-ups. Yet he manages to keep his sense of integrity and serve justice. Born in Venice, with the Venetian name “Zeno,” he’s a perpetual outsider in the unpredictable bureaucratic and political forces in Rome.

Like James Bond, Zen’s ironic dark humor adds to his sophistication. They both dress well and aren’t afraid of car chases and other near-death experiences. Yet, like a good Italian man, Zen lives with his mother (Catherine Spaak) while separated from his wife.

Largely, Rufus Sewell is perfect as Zen. He captures both the cynical and emotional aspects of Zen’s character. He maintains the serious demeanor of a fighter for justice, while his smile is engaging. But it took me a while to get used to an English accent coming out of the mouth of an Italian crime fighter. In fact, all the characters, with their various English and Irish accents, seemed a bit silly at first.

In the first episode, “Vendetta,” Zen’s case concerns the murder of a corrupt millionaire. In a play on a “locked room murder,” the vic was killed in his top-security estate. Although monitored by closed circuit video cameras, they failed to show the murderer. Unfortunately, the suspect arrested by the police is recanting his confession before trial.

Officials in a seemingly important but nameless government ministry instruct Zen that he must resolve the murder quickly and they don’t care whom he pins it on, so long as it isn’t the arrested man. His chief gives him contrary instructions. In the meantime, Zen finds himself in the path of a murderous rampage by a psychotic killer who had been wrongly imprisoned.

The burgeoning romance between Zen and his chief’s new assistant, the beautiful Tania Moretti, (Caterina Murino, “L’enquête Corse”) lends an air of sweetness and optimism to an otherwise dark world.

Rome, in an important juxtaposition to Zen’s dark moods and corrupt world, never looked better. Filled with sunshine and shots of vistas as well as cobblestone streets, Rome is practically a character in the series. The location adds to the series as New York City added to “Law and Order” and “Sex and the City.”

The plot lines, based on Dibdin’s ingenuity, are tight and suspenseful, with a soupçon of action that gets your adrenaline flowing. The characters are well drawn and the acting is outstanding.

Aurelio Zen is a fascinating action-packed hero of the 21st century. Don’t miss these episodes of “Zen,” because BBC One cancelled additional episodes, stating that there are “already enough male crime-fighters on TV.” Yes, there may be many TV male crime-fighters, but most are inane, as are the programs in which they appear.

By the way, “The Last Sherlock Holmes Story,” Dibdin’s first novel, written in 1979, is one of the better of the non-canonical Sherlock Holmes stories, and I’ve read many.

©Emily S. Mendel 2011 All Rights Reserved

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