We have fast become addicts of BBC television series, especially those that end up on PBS Masterpiece. We’d noticed Zen when it was temporarily streaming on Netflix, but it was Carl V.’s encouragement that we follow through and watch it. I am so glad we did.
Zen is a television series originally aired for and by BBC then picked up by PBS Masterpiece. There are three 90 minute installments: “Vendetta,” “Cabal,” and “Ratking.” And before Aurelio Zen, the Italian Police Detective, came to screen, he was created by Michael Dibdin in a series of detective novels. I have yet to read any of the novels, but Carl V. has, and in his review of Dead Lagoon (Vintage Books, 1994), he makes a few comparisons with the television series.
Rufus Sewell stars as Aurelio Zen a soft-speaking bit of a smart-ass Venetian in Rome working as a detective and living with his mother. Zen is good at his job, but it is his impeachable reputation for integrity that certain politicians are keen to make good use of it. In “Vendetta,” he is caught between competing interests and as the series continues you realize Zen is often placed in this situation. There are certain resolutions the powers that be would like to see. But as the series progresses the stakes change, as does the application of pressure. And it doesn’t get old watching Zen negotiate his way through these difficult and increasingly perilous cases.
Zen’s personal life is not the least bit wearisome either. Separated from his wife, Zen has taken an ardent interest in the new office secretary, Tonia Moretti (Caterina Murino of Casino Royale note). But then, most all the men in the office have noticed the secretary and a crude betting pool started. High School antics come to mind despite the professional office attire. Zen’s jealousy and bits of vengeance are amusing; as is his awkwardness in trying to initiate an affair with the much more sexually confident Tonia. (The show is well-populated with sexually self-possessed women.) Again, Zen’s ethics come to bear and he has to figure his way through and around them.
His living with his mother is a sweet tension. His (quite beautiful) mother would have him happy, instead of being “stuck in a flat with your stupid, old mother.” “Ah, Mother, you’re not old,” Zen replies, a quiet smile. Their affectionate teasing is a steadfast charm in the series. Their relationship, his friendships, and his blossoming relationship with Tania are constant sources of warmth and humor.
Zen has a dry wit that surfaces quietly and the initial surprise is lovely. The comedic moments in the show are done in such a way that is very appealing, none of it forced or anticipatory. Sewell’s smooth delivery, his inhabitation of Zen’s posture, his ego and his uncertainties…I have finally realized this actor’s appeal.
Alas, according to the Wikipedia page for the show,
“The series was canceled by BBC One in February 2011; BBC One controller Danny Cohen later said there were already enough male crime-fighters on TV. Left Bank, the show’s producer, has been in discussions with other broadcasters about continuing the series elsewhere.”
I truly hope someone will pick this series up. While I agree there are “already enough male crime-fighters on TV” (as well as female), few are like Aurelio Zen, and even fewer have a more appealing series.
Zen provides some good mysteries for “Peril on Screen” : Readers Imbibing Peril (RIP) VI.