Friday, June 9, 2017


Most men in their 40s who live with their mothers are probably not seen as desirable by women, but then again, most men aren't Rufus Sewell.

In Zen (2011), Sewell plays Aurelio Zen, an Italian police detective in Rome. Zen originated in the crime novels by author Michael Dibdin, who himself was British, so if you have complaints about a British actor playing an Italian, I guess in a roundabout way we should have expected it.

Dibdin wrote 11 Zen novels. This TV miniseries, comprised of three 90-minute episodes for BBC, adapts three of them, and that's probably all were getting, at least with Rufus Sewell and from the BBC. That's a shame because over the course of the three episodes, as I followed the characters, learned who they were and remembered their names, and saw all the developments unfold, I liked Zen more and more. It's a fun, stylish detective series with a sly sense of humor and a strong emphasis on character development.

Compared to other police and detective shows, Zen is more political. I don't mean that it contains a lot of social subtext or offers commentary or satire.Yes, government officials play prominent roles in the stories, but the politics here is more office politics and career advancement. Zen himself has a strong sense of right and wrong and always tries to do the right thing, but he's not above trading favors, working to keep something hush-hush that might embarrass a government minister, or humiliating an inept co-worker who only has a job because of family connections.

As others approach him throughout the series, Zen repeatedly hears he is a man of integrity, which is true. In a country with constant government turnover with police known for corruption and self-serving behavior, Zen dedicates himself to upholding the law, at great risk personally and professionally. His father was a police officer killed in the line of duty, and while it's never stated aloud, that probably informs his dedication to the job, even though his friend and former co-worker Gilberto (Francesco Quinn) tells him to quit and join his private detective agency for more money.

But Zen is not a square Joe Friday clone. Sewell plays him as a man who rarely gets upset or fazed; he seems more bemused by everything than infuriated, constantly scoping all the angles, and he's not averse to the occasional quip. After he turns down a woman's offer to go upstairs while her husband is away, she asks him if he doesn't like sex, and the detective, long separated from his wife, replies, "No, in fact, I have fond memories of it."

Zen is less focused on the forensics of police work than its contemporaries. In the three episodes, Zen investigates a murder in which the presumed killer retracts his confession, a suicide, and kidnapping, and the procedural aspects are less about fingerprints, DNA, etc. and more about motive, who's lying, and what are the ulterior agendas of all parties. Even these parts have traces of humor, like a murder suspect who insists he didn't do it because he would have preferred to kidnap the victim and hold him for ransom.

The show is like that, balancing believable humor with hard-boiled drama. The show also has a romantic side. Over the course of the series, Zen begins a relationship with co-worker Tania (Caterina Murino), and it goes from initial mutual interest, trying to keep it secret from the office (despite a pool by the men to see who beds her first, which Zen rightly calls sexist), and dealing with trust issues, not to mention Tania's soon-to-be ex-husband.

The show makes good use of its Italian locations. We go from modern urban Rome to mountain villages to country estates and even into underground caverns.Zen deals with a whole manner of people and scum: belligerent yet dependable boss Moscati (Stanley Townsend), the Minister's nefarious fixer Colonna (Ben Miles), and his saint of a mother Donata (Catherine Spaak).

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