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Television Review: Zen

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Rome, Italy. Home to the Colosseum, the Forum and Vatican City. Its cobblestone streets have seen the likes of Julius Caesar and Sophia Loren stride their lengths. However, the romance and history of the city are easily matched by its reputation for intrigues behind closed doors, governments collapsing with regularity, labour unrest, organized crime, corruption and bribery. Where police corruption is taken for granted to such an extent an honest cop is believed to be as rare as hen’s teeth and a figure to be exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

This is the stage upon which three marvellous adaptations of Michael Dibdin’s police detective novels take place. Zen, named for its lead character Aurelio Zen, was originally shown in July 2011 on PBS’s Mystery. Now, those of us who missed it the first time, and those who require another fix, will have the opportunity as all three episodes, Vendetta, Cabal and Rat King, are being rebroadcast starting tonight June 10 2012 and successive Sundays from 9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET. (As always with PBS check your local listings for exact scheduling)

For those of you who’ve not yet had the pleasure of experiencing Zen have no fear, I won’t be giving any secrets away. However, the plots of each episode are only half the joy of watching the series as the human characters compete for our attention with both the beauty of their surroundings and the aura of intrigue they swim through.

Leading the cast is the inestimable Rufus Sewell as Zen, the Venetian detective now working in Rome’s main criminal investigation division. More often cast as the villain of the piece than the hero, given the opportunity to play the good guy for once he shines. When the series opens both his career and life appear to have reached something of a standstill. Separated, on the verge of divorce, he’s moved back home to live with his mother and as he approaches his mid thirties, younger and more politically connected detectives look to be on the verge of leaving him in their dust.

His one advantage is the fact that he’s an outsider with no obvious connections to any political party or interest group. Unfortunately for him that has brought him to the attention of the government officials responsible for the police force. Somehow, to his chagrin, he’s earned a reputation for integrity and honesty which his political masters have no trouble exploiting when it suits their needs. After all, as one high ranking civil servant says when requesting him to figure out a way of getting somebody off a murder charge, nobody will question the findings, no matter how outrageous, of one so well known for his honesty. As both Zen and viewers discover, once his political masters understand his usefulness they have no hesitation in treating him as their personal arm of the law.

Of course Zen isn’t quite as innocent or naive as those around him would like to believe. In fact he ends up using those beliefs to his advantage by surprising people with his intelligence and willingness to go to any lengths to protect himself and his reputation. A quick study he soon realizes ways in which he can use the goodwill he earns to do things like ensure his department is spared the next round of government budget cuts. Of course he also discovers the importance of concealed recording devices when meeting with politicians and how to best make use of the resulting tapes. It’s a subtle and dangerous game he’s forced to play as more often than not the needs of the politicians put him in direct conflict with both his department and even the law. But like the best high wire performers no matter how precarious the footing he always seems to be able to put his feet right.

He also brings his famous discretion to his personal life when he starts an affair with his boss’s beautiful secretary, Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Object of every detective’s lust, and an office pool as to whom will bed her first, Moretti surprises by spurning all advances.

Determined to not be the object of discussion, the two do their best to keep their affair quiet. Unfortunately for Zen and Moretti the course of true love doesn’t run smooth. She is in the midst of a messy divorce which puts a strain on their relationship as she finds it hard to trust another man after putting up with a jealous husband for ten years. For his part Zen is still feeling the pain of having, as far as he’s concerned, failed because his marriage didn’t work out and his wife now wants a divorce in order to marry another man.

Shot on location in Rome and the italian countryside Zen is as beautiful and lush to look at as it is well acted and directed. In fact the only slightly disconcerting element note in the series comes about because of the authenticity of its look. From his rugged good looks to his physical mannerisms Sewell comes across as thoroughly Italian. So when he opens his mouth and speaks with his British accent it is something of a surprise. With many of the cast being Italian and speaking accented English it’s initially off putting. However, it doesn’t take long to become so immersed in the stories that something as trivial as accents no longer matter. In fact, thinking of the alternative, actors attempting to put on accents, one quickly comes to appreciate the choice made to let actors speak in their own dialects. It actually ends up making the series more believable.

Ever since Julius Caesar was brought down by the knives of Brutus and his fellow conspirators Italy has put the rest of the world to shame when it comes to skulduggery and political intrigue. Conspiracy theorists the world over could never even dream up some of the plots that seem to be daily occurrences in Italian politics. When money, sex and politics are combined they weave particularly convoluted trails and in the Italy Zen lives and works in they come together to make life for an honest cop particularly difficult. Starting tonight, June 10 2012, at 9:30 p.m. and continuing for the next two weeks, don’t miss the opportunity of stepping into this world. You won’t regret it.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.