Zen Mysteries on PBS: A Meditation on Italian Noir

Masterpiece Mystery! Joins the 21st Century with a Cool Cop

By , Columist

Courtesy WBGH

Catarina Murino and Rufus Sewell as Zen

With the opening credits, a stylish Sixties-style graphic look sets the slick tone for Zen, a detective series adapted from the Aurelio Zen thrillers by the late Michael Dibdin. Part of Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS, the first of only three feature-length episodes starts tonight.

The classic English countryside of quaint sleuth tales, typical of Masterpiece Mystery!, has been replaced with evocative locations around Rome in this modern production from the BBC and WBGH. British actor Rufus Sewell stars as an intrepid investigator whose steely yet sexy presence is a departure from fare like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marples. Sewell has appeared in Pillars of the Earth, John Adams, The Illusionist, and will be seen in the upcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Zen stands for Zeno - not a reference to Buddhism. He hails from Venice not Rome, which makes him an intriguing outsider among the Italian Polizia’s Murder Squad. But perhaps underlying his name is a clue to a subtle zen-like approach—serene, introspective and mindful. Detached—from all the right people—Zen stays true to himself. This sly, sharp-suited, espresso-driven cop has ethics (even insisting on paying his barista), and a rare killer smile.

While solving cases, Zen must outwit the conflicting demands of conniving bureaucrats and the undercurrent of police department corruption. Accused of “scrupulous integrity,” the detective manages to handle situations with a sense of ambivalence, all the while, juggling his mother, ex-wife-to-be and budding relationship with former Bond girl, Caterina Murino’s sultry secretary.

Each case requires his masterful maneuvering of contradictory demands as well as all the scheming criminals. Vendetta opens with an assassination, Cabal starts with a possible suicide and Ratking on an abduction - though that’s just the set-up of the three installments.

The dialogue of this suspenseful police procedural is in English, with a few Italian accents added for authentic flavor. A few British colloquialisms oddly slip in, such as “cheeky” or “shag,” when a few Italian words might have worked better. But the emphasis is on the psychological drama with a dark edge that reflects the original writing. There’s plenty of action and car chases, but the unexpected twists in this whodunnit have more to do with how Zen gets out of whatever fix he’s in.

With eight other stories in the Zen series, this production should not only prompt new interest in the novels but gather steam for more of the books to be turned into episodes. Unfortunately the BBC cancelled production, so hopefully someone else will pick it up.   

Watch the debut of Zen on Sunday, July 17 at 9 p.m., plus the next two weeks, July 24 and July 31 on PBS.

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Roberta Cruger has written for Salon, The Believer, the LA Times magazine, and more. She was the founding media editor of Creem magazine and a member of MTV’s original programming team. Based in LA, she covers the green carpet for Treehugger and entertainment as US correspondent for the AFP’s RelaxNews.

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