Judge Clark Douglas wanders the streets of Rome in search of great pasta.
Our review of Zen, published August 11th, 2011, is also available.
Based on the best-selling books by Michael Dibdin.
"I've got nothing left to lose."
Facts of the Case
Italian police detective Aurelio Zen (Rufus Sewell, Dark City) has built a reputation as a man of integrity. That makes him the exception to the rule in his department; a place where breaking the rules and planting evidence is the name of the game. Zen also has a surprising knack for wriggling his way out of almost any situation, whether it be contradictory orders from superiors or being held at gunpoint by a band of bloodthirsty criminals. Over the course of these three 90-minute adventures, Zen investigates murders, wanders across Rome to interview suspects and romances his beautiful colleague Tania (Caterina Murino, Casino Royale).
In early 2011, BBC1 announced that it was canceling the breezy detective drama Zen after only one season. Such things happen all the time, but no one had expected the program to get the axe. After all, the ratings were good, the critical reaction was positive and audiences seemed eager for a second round of the program. However, it was determined that Zen needed to go because the airwaves contained "too many male detectives" and "arguably too much crime." Such thinking is more or less unheard of in the entertainment industry, and perhaps BBC1 controller Danny Cohen is correct in saying that the airwaves are overcrowded with such characters (we could certainly do with a few less cop shows here in the states). Still, it's a shame that a program as enjoyable as Zen is the victim of this ultimatum (the similarly well-received male detective-dominated crime shows Sherlock and Wallander live on).
Zen may be rather lightweight in contrast to many of the detective dramas on the air; more of an afternoon snack than a seven-course meal. Even so, afternoon snacks done right can qualify as great cuisine, too. This show is such a pleasure to spend some time with, the kind of thing that reminds us of why detective show formulas became formulas in the first place. It's the television equivalent of a gentle breeze on a warm day, a great deal more elegant in its execution than the average episode of CSI.
The show adopts the recently trendy "three 90-minute episodes" format, which essentially makes the viewer feel as if they're watching a film series rather than a mere television show. While it can lead to bloat at times, it can also be a format that allows writers & directors room to make things a little more detailed and nuanced than if they were stuffing everything into an hour. Zen works perfectly at 90 minutes a pop, using the opportunity to embrace an enjoyably languid pace that suits this easy-going character quite well.
The three stories being told all more or less follow a similar pattern: Zen is assigned to a case with so much political baggage that it seems as if he'll come out poorly no matter what happens. Slowly but surely, he begins to discover the truth of things and attempts to figure out how to successfully close the case with his career intact. "Vendetta" follows Zen as he investigates a series of assassinations, "Cabal" has him attempting to figure out whether a high-profile suicide was really a suicide and "Ratking" requires him to solve an inexplicable murder and to find a wealthy individual who is being held for ransom.
The chief virtue of Zen is the performance of Rufus Sewell in the title role. Slumping his shoulders, wearing sharp suits and constantly nursing a cigarette, he has the rumpled polish of a middle-aged Marcello Mastroianni (and proves an equally commanding screen presence). Sewell can be a difficult actor to cast correctly, but he proves the perfect choice for this role. He seems to take joy in underplaying the part; wringing so much out of a half-smile or a quick glance. Shuffling and mumbling his way towards the conclusion, Sewell provides a welcome reminder of how less can often be more.
The program itself behaves in similar fashion, allowing the stories to unfold at a natural, unhurried pace. There's plenty of time for friendly chats and little moments between the characters, all of which quietly work towards giving us a better understanding of these people and their world. Every now and then, we'll be flung into a tension-filled set piece (consider the train station sequence in "Ratking" or the harrowing cave sequence in "Vendetta"), but the show never feels as if it's operating on a time limit.
Zen arrives on Blu-ray boasting a sturdy 1080i/1.78:1 transfer. It's one of the sharpest interlaced transfers I've seen, offering superb levels of detail and allowing viewers to soak in the lovely Italian settings the series employs. Facial detail is top-notch, and blacks are deep and inky. Things can get a little muddled when the camera moves quickly, but that doesn't happen very often. Audio is also strong, with crisp dialogue and an enjoyable sensual score from composer Adrian Johnston (highlighted by minor-key main theme performed by a harpsichord and a cooing female vocalist). Sound design tends to be pretty minimal. The only extra is an engaging half-hour featurette entitled "Zen: An Italian Adventure."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the romantic scenes between Sewell and Murino are enjoyable, I could have done without the silly subplot in which members of the police department place bets on which person within the department will sleep with Murino's character first. It's an amusing gag for a while, but it's overemphasized and eventually turns into a stale joke.
While I'm disappointed that we won't be getting more of Zen, that shouldn't stop you from checking out these three 90-minute mysteries. They're immensely enjoyable little affairs and the series actually concludes on a very satisfying note. A perfect choice for those who prefer their lightweight entertainment not to insult their intelligence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
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