End of Series: Zen
The Yorker, 18 January 2011
Those who have been hooked on 'Dancing on Ice' and 'Wild at Heart' may not have noticed that BBC1 has been putting effort in for once, and have produced a new, expensive detective drama series, 'Zen'. But while it has provided a source of entertainment during its very short 3-part run, it hasn’t quite set the screen alight.
The series is set in an Italy where no one speaks Italian, but they do say ‘grazie’ and ‘prego’. This does take some digesting, but you soon learn that the setting is irrelevant. All you really need to know is that Rufus Sewell plays Detective Aurelio Zen, who is known for his honesty and integrity. This also means that a high-ranking government minister often manipulates Zen in order to get the outcome he wants from each week’s case.
Each episode of the series has varied in quality somewhat. The first episode was painfully slow. The second episode was much better, despite another slow start. The third episode finally showed Zen in full swing, with the familiarity of the regular characters and the format of a crime occurring, with the minister requesting Zen to be put onto the case, being fully established. This meant that the episode was able to be a bit more creative than it had been at the start.
The main trouble that has blighted every episode of 'Zen' is that the overarching plot regarding government cover ups doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The reason for this is that the revelations about what is actually going on are saved for the last three minutes, when they are terribly rushed. Also, the scenes are done in such a way, with whispering, cryptic conversations, that it doesn’t make you want to try to work out what is happening, yet these scenes should be the highlights of the episodes.
While Zen has definitely got issues, the character, most refreshingly, does not. He’s not an alcoholic, a drug addict, a cheat, a psycho... he doesn’t even have a shady past. This makes him easy to relate to, and Rufus Sewell is excellent in the role. Caterina Murino (who will forever be the other woman from Casino Royale) is also good as his love interest, despite her role requiring little more than her looks.
The best part about the series, though, has to be the opening credits sequence, which oozes class. It is therefore unfortunate that 'Zen' doesn’t always live up to them. Yes, the scenery is gorgeous, and Italy provides a welcome retreat from the harsh representation of central London that has become increasingly common in modern dramas, but the credits suggest that 'Zen' will be like a stylish 1960s spy caper, in the vein of 'The Thomas Crown Affair'. At times there are certainly indications of this style, but this sense of fun isn’t consistently sustained, which has resulted in a slow pace and occasionally muddled storylines.
Despite this, it would be nice to see 'Zen' recommissioned, as the third episode showed the development that the series had made. A second series should therefore be able to continue to smooth out the problems and reach the heights that it clearly has the potential to do.