Writing today at the Kirkus Reviews site, I preview the sexy new British-made TV crime drama Zen, which will make its broadcast debut in the States this coming Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! series. You’ll find my piece here.
For Zen, screenwriter Simon Burke has adapted the first three of Michael Dibdin’s 11 Italian detective novels starring police commissioner Aurelio Zen: Ratking (1988), Vendetta (1990), and Cabal (1992). However, he’s reordered them, making Ratking the last of those three televised installments. That decision has required some changes in the plots, but then so has the shift in media from books to the boob tube. Perhaps newcomers to Dibdin’s tales won’t spot the assorted modifications, but veteran readers of this author’s excellent work surely will.
Which shouldn’t suggest, though, that Zen has lost its appeal through adaptation. It hasn’t, as I make clear in my column:
Shot on location around Rome, this program is lush with architecture and landscapes evoking the splendors of ancient history. Aurelio Zen, played with low-key authority by English actor Rufus Sewell (Eleventh Hour, Middlemarch), remains the too-scrupulous-for-his-own-good cop who lives with his mother, resents the cheating wife from whom he’s separated, and tries to exact justice in a system epidemic with corruption. He’s joined here--in more ways than one--by the younger Tania Moretti (aka Tania Biacis in Dibdin’s books), his chief’s fetching and unhappily married assistant, portrayed by Italian former Bond girl Caterina Murino. Although Zen’s cast is international, and everybody speaks English with a different accent, it’s quite easy to overlook that illogic as the drama unfolds, its marvels, mysteries and treacheries tumbling over one another in a seductive rush.New York Times critic Elizabeth Jensen further elucidates Zen’s many visual and storytelling attractions:
While the Zen mysteries follow the formula of crimes that can be solved in 90 minutes, the series’s broader theme is a departure for “Masterpiece” as well, as Zen tries to maneuver his way around corruption in his own department and the government, with conflicting pressure from all sides in the cases at hand.Though all three episodes are well worth watching, the third one, “Ratking”--in which the ever-melancholy Zen contrives to win the release of a wealthy kidnapping victim--is the most satisfying in terms of character and plot development. It also offers some enjoyable dialogue. At one point, for instance, a politician chides Zen by remarking, “Your scruples do you credit. But really, it’s no way to get ahead, is it?” Later, the curvaceous Tania, questioning Zen’s choice to make a ransom money drop himself, says, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” To which the pragmatic cop replies, “Of course I don’t.”
“I rather liked that he’s set up to fail,” said Andy Harries, the chief executive of Left Bank Pictures, which--fresh from adapting Henning Mankell’s “Wallander” mysteries, also shown on “Masterpiece Mystery!”--developed the series for the BBC and “Masterpiece.” “The levels of corruption are so immense, so culturally ingrained in Italy,” he said, referring to the scandals involving the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. “We might regard it as corruption, but the Italians don’t. It’s just a very, very different culture.”
The tension “makes for quite a subtle show, with the ambivalence and complexities,” he added. “It was designed to push the boat out further, make the viewer work a little harder.”
The only thing I find sad in all of this is that these three episodes of Zen might be the only ones ever made. UK broadcaster BBC1, which commissioned the series, cancelled it earlier this year, despite favorable viewer ratings. However, Left Bank Pictures, the independent producer of Zen, is hoping that some other broadcaster will now pick up the program. My fingers are crossed that Zen, Tania, and the rest of the cast will be gracing our screens again very soon.
To give you a feel for Zen, I’m embedding two videos below. The first features the series’ lovely opening credits and three scenes, the last of which finds Zen and Tania visiting an ailing but perceptive police colleague. The second video focuses on Zen’s budding relationship with Tania, which they’re both trying to keep quiet at the office.
READ MORE: “Zen Preview,” by Robin Jarossi (Crime Time Preview).