Review: Rufus Sewell Is the Charismatic Core of the Mysterious 'Zen'

Aol, 15 July 2011
By Maureen Ryan

All I asked of the Masterpiece Mystery series 'Zen' (Sunday, PBS; check local listings) was that it give me a reason to stare at Rufus Sewell for 90 minutes. It did, just about.

Let's face it, Don Draper isn't around this summer, so if you need to see a handsome man in a sharp suit smoking, brooding and staring out a window, 'Zen' could be the show for you.

Sewell plays an ethical Italian detective trying his best to stay clean in a Roman police force almost hopelessly compromised by corruption. And by the way, his name, Aurelio Zen, has nothing to do with Buddhism -- it's the short version of a Venetian surname.

PBS will show three 'Zen' films on the next three Sundays, and the first one, which I've seen, has a somewhat odd structure. The first half has all the Roman ambiance you could want -- maybe a bit too much, given that parts of the story are slow to get moving -- and the second half is a bit more action-oriented and takes place far away from the cosmopolitan Italian capital.

The case in the first film also resolves quite neatly, and there were some sections in the middle -- particularly when Zen is chasing a suspect around in a series caves -- that could have used a lot of editing. I haven't read the Michael Dibden Aurelio Zen novels on which these films are based, but, in the first one, I got the sense that giant pieces of context and character development were hacked away in order to have a story that would fit into a 90- minute running time.

Sewell manages to invest the character with his enigmatic charisma, but your enjoyment of 'Zen' may entirely rest on whether you are willing to watch Zen drink small cups of coffee and moodily drive through the hills outside Rome. There's more to 'Zen' than that -- there's a budding romance with a work colleague and strong intimations of corruption at the highest levels of government -- but not that much more.

Still, Sewell looks good in the Italian suits and shades, the supporting cast is generally good and the atmosphere is effective even when the pacing has problems. Anyway, it's the slow season of television, when you might have time for a good-looking Italian detective's personal and professional problems. 'Zen' is thankfully free of the "blue skies" you'll find on the USA Network; if you're a mystery fan and you've got some free space on your DVR, it couldn't hurt to try La Dolce Vita.

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