Italian Plays Central Character in PBS Miniseries, 15 July 2011
By Gail Pennington

Aurelio Zen is something different for PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery." He's Italian.

On Sunday, "Zen" joins "Wallander" (set in Sweden) as the rare entry in the long-running PBS franchise that doesn't feature a British crime solver.

Brits have been enduringly popular with American viewers in more than 30 years of "Mystery" (now a subcategory of the former "Masterpiece Theatre"). Most productions since the series' debut in 1980 have been British imports or co-productions, and fans never seem to get their fill of Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes and Inspectors Morse, Lynley and Lewis.

But all of those repressed emotions, bracing cups of tea and perpetually gray English skies can get a bit monotonous. Enter "Zen," based on the mystery novels of Michael Dibdin and shot under the blue skies of Rome.

"He's a cop in a world where the pressure is always on, the danger is always there, and he is in Armani," host Alan Cumming says in introducing the first of three "Zen" episodes. "It's Rome, where women walk on ancient cobblestones in stiletto heels and tight skirts. Where cars are fast and lunch is slow. The Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, espresso, corruption, murder."

Life isn't all long lunches for Aurelio Zen, though. The detective, played by Rufus Sewell, is nearing 40, living with his mother after a failed marriage, and navigating the tricky waters of Italian police politics, getting by on both his brain and his charm.

That charm is so boundless that Zen attracts not only the most beautiful woman in the office but also some predatory female on almost every outing. And he attracts the unwanted attention of powerful higher-ups who make demands that often clash with those of his supervisors. All Zen can do is keep his head down and solve the cases with a combination of clever police work, rule-bending and what might be blind luck.

"The real pleasure of it for me is the fact that he's always in a bad situation. He's always one step behind," Sewell said when PBS introduced the series to TV critics in January. "He has to be slippery."

Sewell also likes the fact that Zen comes off as complicated and human.

"In the literature, he's described as honest, but I don't think he's particularly honest," Sewell said. "I think he's, in his own way, perfectly capable of kicking a man when he's down and being underhanded and sneaky."

The Rome setting is a pleasure for viewers, and the actors appreciated it, too.

"What's wonderful about Rome is unaffected by the tourists and stuff," Sewell said. "And the Italians are lovely. It was a real, real treat to be in Rome."

Also a pleasure for viewers is the steamy relationship between Zen and Tania Moretti, the boss' secretary, played by Caterina Murino ("Casino Royale"). Their attraction and its flowering into love (and furniture-smashing sex) is developed over the course of the three, 90-minute episodes with real romantic finesse by screenwriter Simon Burke.

The only real problem in "Zen," one that was also noted when the three episodes aired last winter in Great Britain, are the jarring accents. Sewell and co-stars including Ed Stoppard ("Upstairs, Downstairs") speak in their normal British accents, while Murino, who is Italian, speaks English with a heavy Italian accent.

Logically, this makes sense. If characters would actually be speaking Italian, it shouldn't matter what accent they have when they speak English, right? In practice, though, it's distracting, and turning on the closed-captioning while watching might be a good idea.

Once past this annoyance, it's easy to fall for "Zen" and want more. That might not be possible; the BBC didn't order additional episodes after producing the first three, although new life is still possible somewhere.

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