TV's Sunday Night Ritual: Serious Drama

By , Columnist

WGBH Masterpiece Theater

Rufus Sewell stars as an Italian detective in Zen.

Sunday night equals high quality scripted drama ever since HBO re-conditioned TV viewers to wrap up their weekends with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire and Deadwood. Then came Mad Men, with its hypnotic take on slow-motion ad agency pyschodrama. Showtime's under-rated Brotherhood hooked us on the Robert DeNiro-like antics of Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) while earlier this summer, The Killing hit the bittersweet bullseye for drama junkies.

In days of yore, before the TV watching hive mind grew accustomed to one last reward before the work week resumed, millions gathered around the primetime campfire on Thursday nights to watch Hiill Street Blues and ER. The networks have largely surrendered the night - every night for that matter - to cheaper and more frivolous distractions.

Consider last week's Emmy nominations, when the Big Four broadcasters were shut out in the Outstanding Drama category.

So forget the networks, and never mind the corpse-centric procedurals that dominate Mondays through Saturdays. To fill in the fallow periods when Emmy-hogging cable series go on hiatus, PBS' ancient Masterpiece Theater can usually be counted on to deliver grown-up drama.

Long lampooned as the last refuge for hoity-toity costume drama, the Sunday night series at times seems impossibly fussy, but the truth is, nobody beats the Brits when it comes to articulating smart dialogue.

Compare a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts with the mumbling American slacker who looks good but can't dispatch an articulate paragraph to save his or her life, and I'll take the RADA thespian any day of the week.

Which brings us to PBS curious new series, Zen. Excellent English actor Rufus Sewell stars as Italian detective Aurelio Zen. Surrounded by corruption, the Armani-suited cop cracks cases in spite of a rotten justice system.

The odd part is that Zen and most of his co-stars, including Masterpiece Theater alumni Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs), Ben Miles (The Forsyte Saga), Stanley Townsend (Sherlock), and Greg Wise (Return to Cranford) all speak with English accents.

The even weirder thing is that it works, once you get over the disconnect that crime-fighters sipping espresso in Italian cafes speak as if they matriculated at Eton.

That's why they call it suspension of disbelief.

Sewell holds it all together by delivering a cool take on the morally upright cop. The stage-trained actor initially made his mark as an outrageously psychotic prince who stole scenes from Edward Norton and Jessica Biel in The Illusionist, and likewise played a sadistic aristocrat in A Knight’s Tale.

Sewell got a bit testy when I interviewed him a couple of years ago about the relatively bland hero he played in CBS's The Eleventh Hour."Because of a couple things I’ve done in the past, people tend to see me as this upper-class villain on a horse, blah blah blah," he said. "The opportunity to show people I could play a basically good guy, quite complex, American, not on a horse — even if that becomes a stereotype that I’m stuck with for a while, there’s so much more play than the other stereotype I was in danger of being caught up with."

So now that he's the good guy, twice in a row, Sewell may in fact have to get down and dirty to remind us how brilliant he can be when embracing the dark side.

Armed with his cool clothes and vulpine visage, Sewell carries the Sunday night drama torch for the rest of the month, fighting with Bryan Cranston's speed-freak Breaking Bad for viewership.

Make it through the dog days of August and you can resume your Sunday night drama fix when network television returns to the end-of-the-weekend fray: In September, CBS trots out The Good Wife in its new Sunday night time slot. Julianna Margulies' edge of your seat courtroom thriller carries the ball for a few months, and next year: more Mad Men!

Zen airs Sundays 9 p.m. / 8 Central on PBS July 23 and July 31. Check local listings.

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Los Angeles-based writer/musician Hugh Hart covers movies, television, design, art and miscellaneous slices of pop culture for publications including Wired Magazine, Los Angeles Times and New York Times. When he's not interviewing people like Quentin Tarantino or Lindsay Lohan, Hugh likes to glug blackā€¦

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