NOV / DEC 2011: BY RUTH ANDERSON
if you visit my blog it will quickly become evident I am a devout Masterpiece Mystery fan. It has brought to life classic sleuths like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, then turned around and reinvented a detective I thought I knew for the 21st-century. It has also been the venue through which I’ve come to know new sleuths, modern-day classics I love as much as the evergreen mainstays. The first new favorite was Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s tortured Swedish detective. After two years of Wallander episodes the same production team switched gears from the isolated, stark brilliance of the Swedish settings to the warmth and color of Italy and a detective named Aurelio Zen. He is the creation of author Michael Dibdin. This summer, PBS aired three captivating, fast-paced, entertaining Zen films that made me love him and his world, a world I long to revisit… but sadly, earlier this year the BBC made an inexplicable decision to cancel Zen, so three episodes is all fans like myself will receive. Lest the premature cancellation discourage one from exploring the show, I wanted to take this fine opportunity to examine what Zen brought Masterpiece Mystery devotees for its all-too-brief existence.
Aurelio Zen is a detective burdened by a drive to get the job right. His disposition for honesty and absolute forthrightness have handed him more than one personal and professional setback, but he approaches these with a deceptively laid-back, almost sunny charm you can’t help but marvel at. Rufus Sewell plays Zen, and while I am an admitted fan, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree that he was born to play this role. Smart, stylish, and charismatic, yet at the same time adorably, boyishly unsure of himself, Sewell owns the screen.
In the first episode, we are introduced to the struggles Zen encounters as he tries to balance his prickly, stressed-out boss’s expectations with the conflicting directive from government ministers, and ferret out the truth of a crime in an environment concerned with political expediency, all while avoiding hit men. And for the most part, Zen does this without getting a wrinkle in his sharply-tailored suit. Vendetta also reveals another of the show’s strengths—its setting. Filmed on location in Italy, the gorgeous scenery and architecture are some of the series’ biggest draws. It is saturated with warmth and color and history that add an exotic atmosphere to the story. Zen is different from the normal British mystery fare, instead of vine-covered cottages or country homes, we’re treated to murder and intrigue in a lush locale.
The story continues with Cabal, a episode that further involves Zen in the lethal world of political intrigue and cover-ups, where a slip-up might not only cost him his career but his life. It opens with another shocking death the ministry wants hushed up, but to Zen no investigation can be that straightforward. He is made the unwilling pawn in a political game of intrigue that introduces the Cabal, a criminal organization that exists at the highest levels of Italian society. The Cabel (who they are, what they do, the very question of their existence) brings in an over-arching theme to the series with limitless possibilities for danger and intrigue.
Zen is underestimated in no small part due to his quiet, unassuming nature. Scenes when power players fail to see his true potential are some of the funniest in the series. The script possesses a welcome dry, sarcastic wit, almost wholly coming from Zen’s character. Since I’ve often joked that sarcasm is one of my love languages, I relish the opportunity to see politicians underestimate Zen’s intelligence and keen grasp of a situation. They think they’re playing him but in reality they are the ones being outplayed and totally outfoxed.
If it had to end after only three episodes, at least Zen ended well. Many television shows could take a page from this program’s playbook—leave the viewer wanting more, but also leave the beloved main characters in a very good place. The final episode, Ratking, sees Zen take on a twisty family drama and a new boss who resents Zen’s favor with the ministry. The narrative is jam-packed with twists and turns and double-crosses that make watching the relationships unravel on-screen fascinating viewing. The pacing and atmosphere are superbly handled—the actors, setting, and score working in tandem to build suspense and tell a story. I can’t help but wonder, with a first season this good, what may have been accomplished had the show continued?
Zen would be the last person in the world to say anything comes easily for him. You must cheer for a character whose biggest fault is a tendency for honesty! But despite his admirable struggle for integrity in his personal and professional life, Zen isn’t without issue. There’s a budding romance between Zen and the lovely (and married) department secretary Tania, played by Caterina Murino. While I hate the fact that Zen and Tania’s relationship kicks into high gear while they’re both still officially married, their chemistry is electric. They excel at playing messed-up individuals striving to grasp some measure of happiness. The show doesn’t shy away from the cost. Just when Ratking gives Zen the illusion that even for just a brief moment, he has it all—the girl, the case—in a flash it dissolves, leaving him on the brink of ruin. But the thing I like so much about Zen is that he refuses to concede defeat. With nothing left to lose and everything to gain, he persists in his investigation and uncovers the truth, nearly losing his life in the process. Surviving the final case of the season is a hard-won victory, and Sewell proves he was the perfect actor to portray the highs and lows, the depth and nuances of this “everyman” character. While Zen’s romantic and professional future are left open-ended, the payoff of the season is unbelievably sweet—a temporary promotion to chief, where he’s able to use his newfound clout to pursue correct lines of enquiry.
Zen is a wonderfully layered, nuanced character, on one hand, seemingly unflappable and self-assured, and on the other capable of incredible kindness and vulnerability. The series is a thoroughly enjoyable trilogy, an intriguing blend of mystery, political drama, and humor with a dash of old-school sensibility that recalls the Sean Connery-era James Bond films or the Roger Moore-helmed adventure series The Saint.
With a stylish throwback vibe, Zen is a gem well worth investigating. ■