Zen and the Art of Sunday Night Television Scheduling
The Guardian, 1 January 2011
Sex, death and corruption: Sunday nights are a long way from the cosy larks of 'Monarch Of The Glen'. Instead of 'Doc Martin', 'Heartbeat' or 'Foyle's (never-ending) War', we've had a run of smart dramas that feel like a quiet renaissance in the way we round off the TV week: 'Any Human Heart', 'Sherlock' and 'Downton Abbey'. It's like TV has ditched the warm cup of cocoa approach in favour of a stiff drink.
Perhaps it's as simple as Sunday being the one night when you can count on being in, allowing you to wallow in decent drama. With every other night pretending it's the "new Friday", it's easier to turn down invitations and hibernate on a Sunday. What's been brilliant is finding shows that are also worth staying awake for.
To take us through the first three Sundays of a dark and cold January 2011 we've got 'Zen', a series of feature-length dramas starring Rufus Sewell, based on Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novels. It's a detective series very much in the mould of Kenneth Branagh's 'Wallander', another atmospheric Sunday night drama based on a popular series of novels. The series has been filmed on location in Italy but everyone speaks English, which gives it the same uncanny sense of familiarity that you had when watching the English version of Wallander for the first time. Zen looks great, with snappy 1960s-style zooms setting the tone; and the stories are as interested in exploring the wider society at large – Berlusconi's Italy – as they are in solving crimes.
Where 'Wallander' gave us a noir vision of modern Sweden – brutal murders, long dark nights, and a distinct lack of flatpack furniture – this is a slightly lighter proposition. Zen's Rome may be populated by corrupt officials, hitmen hiding out in the hills and twisty murder cases, but with a sharp-suited Sewell and glamorous Bond girl Caterina Murino (Casino Royale) flirting in the corridors of the police station, there's a sense of fun running through it all. Sewell can match Branagh in the brooding cop stakes, but then turn on the charm with a raised eyebrow.
It's quickly established that detective Zen is one of the few honest cops in a police department that seems to be run on favours, backhanders and a policy of maintaining the status quo; a government official leans on Zen to re-open a high-profile murder case involving a millionaire and his guests in a remote villa when the prime suspect retracts his confession. But there's a massive caveat: they don't really want him to uncover anything new ("We are not having this conversation"). Zen's attitude to navigating this moral maze is to find a way to do the right thing – while making it look like he's acquiesced to the wrong thing. A witty double bluff.