TV Review: PBS' 'Zen'
Gorgeous Italian Locations Upstage the Drama In This Ongoing Mystery, 16 July 2011
By Daniel Fienberg

Even if I could afford to take a trip to Rome this summer, I probably couldn't spare the time, what with an unprecedented number of new TV shows premiering across broadcast and cable dials through months which once used to be quite fallow.

Kudos to PBS, I supposed, for solving one problem while compounding another.

"Zen," which premieres this Sunday (July 17), may have added a few hours of work to my weekend, but with its rather magnificent use of locations in and around Rome, it took the place of of a quick getaway to Italy. [Please, though, don't ask me what kind of vacation to Italy lasts only three hours, doesn't include a single strand of homemade pasta and forces me to take notes the entire time.]

Based on the novel series by Michael Dibdin, "Zen" unfolds in three mysteries airing over the next three Sundays and is it any good? Well, as whodunnit? It's not really all that involving. But as a low-cost getaway to Europe? It serves its purpose admirably. Temper your expectations accordingly and you'll find some value in "Zen," even if the thrills are lacking.

As a disclaimer, I only made it through this Sunday's mystery (titled "Vendetta") and next Sunday's mystery (titled "Cabal"), both written by Simon Burke.

There's a moment in Cabal that summed up many of my problems with the three hours I watched.

Rufus Sewell's Aurelio Zen, a Roman detective, is talking to an informant, an informant facing the threat of one of those pesky conspiracies that go All The Way To the Top. Zen wonders why the informant came to him and he gets this response...

"You're a Venetian. An outsider here. A maverick. With a reputation for integrity."

If you wish to enhance your enjoyment of "Zen," or just to utterly demolish your liver, I recommend this drinking game: Find a fine grappa with the highest alcohol content available. Then do a shot every time somebody mentions Zen's integrity or honest to him, either as a direct observation (it's rarely a compliment) or as this sort of second-hand reflection upon his reputation. Odds are you won't make it through either episode. If you wish to guarantee you'll end the viewing in an incapacitated state, take a shot whenever Zen's Venetian roots are mentioned, either as an explanation for his name or an explanation for why he doesn't quite seem to fit in amidst the corruption of Rome.

As the dialogue will never, ever let us forget, Aurelio Zen is the only scrupulous detective in Rome. He's honest to a fault, a trait that has cost him promotions and frequently caused problems with the entrenched power structure in a city that has done things the same way for centuries.

I often complain about TV shows in which other characters repeatedly refer to our hero's attributes, but the writers haven't bothered to tailor the visible behavior to justify the gossip. This is not one of those cases. Not only are we constantly told of Zen's integrity, but it's ever on display. He's introduced to us refusing even a free cup of coffee from a local barista. He isn't just casually honest. He's compulsively honest. He's a supernova of integrity just waiting to explode.

Zen also lives with his mother, is hesitant to divorce his long-estranged and separated wife and puts much more care into being flawlessly attired than anybody around him.

It's not that Detective Zen isn't good at his job, but for the purposes of this TV series, he puts the virtues of a well-tailored suit above everything else and because he's played by Rufus Sewell, you know that every inch of fabric with fall flawlessness [sic]. The series puts a similar emphasis on making sure that every frame showcases the time the production spent in The Eternal City. Glazed lovely with a golden sheen, this is the Rome of '70s Euro-thriller fantasies, where there's never too much traffic to prevent an automotive pursuit, the Colosseum is always just a shortcut away and the afternoon sun never fails to hit the Tiber perfectly. Accompanied by a light jazzy soundtrack -- never better utilized than in the Blue Note cover-inspired credits -- this is definitely not Rome the way a native would see Rome, but if it's an outsider's view of Rome, at least the outsider is in love.

"Zen" looks so good that you rarely stop to worry that there's very little police work going on in these alleged mysteries. In both telefilms I watched, the structure was identical: Zen is brought in on a case that seems straight-forward only to have the squeeze put on him from Up on High. But even with threats to his life and his professional future, we know how Zen will response to every situation because, well, he's an outsider and he's a man with a well-deserved reputation for integrity. Both early cases are just vehicles for beautiful women to throw themselves at Zen and for everybody to lament Italy's entrenched class system and sketchy law enforcement.

Because Zen is so dogged and virtuous, he spends more time being bemused by the fun others are having -- fun apparently equally decadence equally a lack of virtue -- than enjoying his life or his work, so it isn't very engaging watching him go about his business. When he relates to other main characters, normally in brief scenes that have little to do with with the core mystery. Zen and colleague Tania (Caterina Murino) have a nice, slow-burn flirtation that develops over the two installments I watched and Sewell and Murino have good chemistry. I also liked the more hostile chemistry between Zen and workplace adversary Vincenzo Fabri, played by Ed Stoppard, who I suspect prefers theater (it's in his blood), but really really needs to work more on the small and big screen.

Now's as good a place as any to touch on accents. There's no getting around it, the accents in "Zen" are a wee bit weird. The characters are all Italians in Italy and they're all speaking in British accents. Except for Murino, who's actually Italian and is actually speaking with a British accent. Or except for when characters watch TV and the programming is in Italian. It's no more unusual than the motley hodgepodge of accents in "Valkyrie" or "Enemy at the Gates" or any number of vintage World War II films. But just because something isn't unusual doesn't mean it doesn't come across as just a bit odd. I was mostly able to ignore the accent situation, though Murino caused some distraction, as did the occasional pronunciation of certain Italian names and locations.

Like BBC America's "Outcasts," "Zen" arrives on American TV pre-canceled. "Zen" drew so-so ratings on BBC One and was swiftly decommissioned and, thus far, no other broadcaster has stepped in to rescue what can't be a cheap production. That doesn't mean you shouldn't turn in. Each episode of "Zen" is a self-contained 90-minute case and the ones I saw delivered on at least part of their promise: For a gripping, compelling mystery? Maybe you don't need to bother with "Zen." For a stylish escape to Rome with some very pretty, well-dressed people? You'll be safely satisfied.

"Zen" premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday, July 17 on PBS.

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