'Masterpiece Mystery!: Zen' Series Premiere

Lesley Smith

As Zen, Rufus Sewell embodies the fatalistic skepticism of an Italian functionary who has not quite lost his self-deprecating sense of humor.

Masterpiece Mystery!: Zen

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Rufus Sewell, Caterina Murano, Ben Miles, Stanley Townsend, Ed Stoppard, Vincent Riotta, Catherine Spaak
Directors: John Alexander, Jon Jones, Christopher Menaul
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: PBS
Air date: 2011-7-17

The title sequence for Zen promises a great deal. With considerable panache, the three-episode series opens with a high-quality, '60s-style pastiche of tinted stills, cut with a slick attention to the jazz-lite, Mancini-inflected score. For a few minutes, it is as if the nihilistic sophistication of movies like Charade or the original Italian Job is being reincarnated to illuminate the waning of Berlusconi’s Italy.

But anticipation soon gives way to disappointment, as an investigation into multiple murders soon collapses under the weight of too much Italian scenery and not enough action. Despite an accomplished cast led by Rufus Sewell as Zen, and some excellent writing, Zen -- which premieres 17 July on PBS, with episodes available online beginning 18 July -- features the same glacial languor that marred Left Bank Pictures' previous series, Wallander, and only finds its footing in the final episode.

Such lassitude takes some commitment. Simon Burke’s scripts eloquently capture the cynicism of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen mysteries. In Vendetta (London: Faber & Faber 1991), Dibdin writes that Italian police work is

…a question of carrying out certain procedures. Occasionally the procedures resulted in crimes being solved, but that was incidental to their main purpose, which was to maintain or adjust the balance of power within the organization itself. The result was a continual shuffling and fidgeting, a ceaseless and frenetic activity which it was easy to mistake for purposeful action.

Zen, a Venetian police inspector now promoted to Rome, has to negotiate this maelstrom and bring criminals to justice. He also has to meet, somehow, the contradictory expectations of his immediate superior, Moscatti (Stanley Townsend), of the corrupt bureaucrats who protect Italy’s even more corrupt politicians, and of his mother. And, as one final burden, he falls in love with the object of the entire detective squad’s very public lust, Tania Moretti (Caterina Murano), assistant to Moscatti.

With all this plot to get moving, director John Alexander wastes too much time in the first episode getting Zen from one place to another. Whole minutes crawl by as he walks through Rome or drives into the mountains of rural Italy; the camera lingers lovingly on Zen’s car as he parks it in an empty square. Even dedicated PBS Masterpiece viewers, weaned on long carriage rides and innumerable exits and entrances from antique motorcars might begin to glaze over. The slow pace gives way to clichés. A wide shot of the darkening city, punctuated by car headlights, appears again (and again). Precipitous mountain roads twist. Hill towns appear magical at a distance, and picturesquely enigmatic at close range.

On the plus side, the second and third episodes do pick up. Under the direction of Jon Jones, Christopher Menaul, they reveal details of a grim gavotte for the chief’s job, whose stresses have hospitalized Moscatti. This and the toxic interplay of political deceit and aristocratic privilege serve as backdrops for the illicit romance of Zen and Tania.

But even so, the series suffers from the patchy production that characterizes so much contemporary television. In this case, the location shooting and stylish British and Italian cast are overlaid by irritating loops of nondescript music that start and stop without reason. All three directors mistake murk for mystery, forgetting that tension and shock arise from the creative interplay of light and dark, and not from the total obscuring of all action onscreen.

The series' unqualified triumph lies in the acting. In an interview with the Guardian in December 2010, Sewell remarked that one of the most appealing aspects of Zen was the space Burke left in the scripts for the detective to evolve. In response, Sewell’s expert performance indicates both the deadpan public persona Zen creates to survive the cut-throat Questura and his bafflement, as he tries to balance doing his job and enjoying his breakfast espresso, his relationship with Tania and the eternal theatre of Rome’s crowded streets.

His skill in this effort emerges as he drives Tania into the city's center after springing her from her jealous husband with a lie about a terrorist emergency. She asks if he wants to know why she needs to get into Rome. He shakes his head: she presses on. Is he sure he doesn’t mind if she doesn’t tell him? In response, Sewell nails the dilemma of man falling in love, desperate to know, but too enmeshed in macho mores to ask. He glances out of the car window, shrugs, raises his eyebrows, and flashes a tight smile at his passenger, then repeats his lie. When Tania chides him, Sewell’s graceful shrug simultaneously admits his being found out and denies the importance of the revelation.

Sewell also embodies the fatalistic skepticism of an Italian functionary who has not quite lost his self-deprecating sense of humor. In Zen’s dealings with Amadeo Colonna (Ben Miles), the enigmatic “man at the ministry,” who is both his patron and potential nemesis, Sewell’s body language is all diffident compliance, but his carefully averted eyes are all calculation. Whether bested by a femme fatale or a bourgeois folie a deux, a puritanical zealot in the Questura or a thug in aristo’s clothing, Zen picks himself up, dusts himself down, and strolls back into the fray with the élan of an early James Bond. Zen’s precarious poise, Sewell’s performance implies, is the only refuge for a man of integrity, if not always innocence, when cornered by fate or the threat a transfer to Palermo.

Though Sewell is supported ably by Murano's witty sensuality and Townsend, who reveals through a symphony of nervous gestures both his affection for Zen and his fear of his waywardness. Yet despite the pleasures of these performances, the series drags. Inside each of Zen’s 90-minute episodes lies, one suspects, a crisp hour. It’s perhaps understandable that the BBC cancelled the series after only three shows. But it’s hard not to hope that a tougher-minded commissioning editor or network might pick up the show, trim the fat, and give the cast another chance.


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