It turns out that British TV executives are just as boneheaded and shortsighted as their American counterparts. Programmers at ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are notorious for ditching shows when they don’t make the top ten after just a few outings. After rolling out the mystery series, Zen, with great fanfare in 2010, the BBC cancelled the show after just three episodes. (BBC One controller Danny Cohen justified the move saying there were already enough male crime-fighters on TV). Zen recently turned up on PBS as part of Masterpiece Mystery and, what can we say? Zen is a terrific series that left us hungry for more. It turns out that there is room on TV for another male crime-fighter, particularly one who looks this good in Armani.
Filmed on location in Rome, the director took full advantage of the beauty of the Eternal City. There are glimpses of the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, and St. Peter’s, among others. What truly transports us to Italy are the shots of all those narrow cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, grand villas, and elegant apartments. What wins us over is Zen himself, played with cool nonchalance by Rufus Sewell. British by birth, Sewell, with his dark good looks and his tall lean figure that more than does justice to those expensive suits, manages to convince us he’s Italian, no mean feat since his Zen speaks English. Oh, and when he dons those sunglasses and dashes across a busy boulevard, we’re convinced he actually is Italian.
Not only Italian, but Venetian. Whenever Zen is asked about his surname, his explanation, “it’s Venetian,” stops people in their tracks. We can only guess it’s a wink-wink from Michael Dibdin, who wrote the Zen mysteries upon which the TV series is based. Perhaps we should take the name literally as meaning “enlightenment” and “wisdom,” two qualities the Italian detective certainly brings to his investigations, mixed in with a good dose of humor. Consider this exchange with a police officer when Zen shows up to investigate the death of a prominent Italian who fell from a bridge and landed on the pavement surrounding the Tiber River.
“Suicide. Couple saw him fall about three o’clock this morning.”
“Sure, it’s a popular spot, the Tiber. Suicides. We get them all the time.”
“He’s not in the Tiber.”
“He’s on the pavement.”
“So you’re suggesting he missed?”
Zen is up against a corrupt system. Often he begins an investigation with everyone around him attempting to manipulate the outcome. Special interests in Italy make those in the U.S. seem like child’s play. In the second episode we are given a glimpse into the Italian cabal, a secret organization that reaches the highest power in the Italian government and church. Can Zen win against such odds? He can only try.
A TV show about Italians must, of course, be sexy. And Zen succeeds admirably. The detective’s love interest, Tania Moretti, played by the sultry Italian actress Caterina Murino, is a recently hired secretary for the murder squad. No sooner has she set up her desk than the squad sets up a pool to guess who will be the first to bed her. While the entire male detective squad lusts after her, she makes a beeline for Zen, teasing him about his reputation for being scrupulously honest and for living with his mother. Soon, the two are stealing moments in elevators and cafes until Tania is able to leave her husband and find an apartment.
Unfortunately, just as the series finds its momentum, it ends. Fortunately, the three episodes are available on DVD and the entire series by Dibdin is still in print.
Can we hope that the BBC, seeing the way the series was embraced by an American audience, will order more episodes? Or that some enterprising American network will restart the series? So many story lines are left unresolved, and the Dibdin books provide many possibilities for future episodes. Zen’s investigations find him traveling all over Italy, to Sicily, Puglia, Naples, Venice, and Sardinia, to name a few. We can just imagine the beautiful scenery, complex plots, compelling characters, and, of course, Zen, in the middle of the action.
Left Bank, the show’s producer, has been in discussions with other broadcasters about continuing the series elsewhere. We have our fingers crossed. Zen is just getting started and we would love to follow along.
To purchase Zen on DVD, go to the PBS website.
To buy Michael Dibdin’s Zen mysteries, go to Amazon.