We’ll start by prefacing this review by saying that, by and large, this writer detests cop and detective shows. They’re too fast, furious, noisy and flashy, with rude people and insipid heroes. So it was with a certain amount of trepidation when faced with yet another BBC One Sunday night cop drama.
Zen’s title sequence is reminiscent of the ITC shows of old (Man In A Suitcase, Department S), while the theme tune has a Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) vibe – calm and melodic, quietly understating the show it opens… and that’s the key to Zen: it’s all very understated.
Rufus Sewell’s Italian detective Aurelio Zen is perfectly pitched and instantly likable, with a warm and inviting calmness. He’s a genuine old-style good honest cop; one with manners and morals, who rather charmingly lives at home with his Mum. He doesn’t shout at people, he doesn’t try it on with every girl that walks through his field of vision, and his voice just oozes a tranquil sexiness.
In the first of three feature-length stories, ‘Vendetta’, Zen is torn between doing what’s right and what’s expected, while dealing with the office slimeball, who gets his comeuppance in a gloriously funny and yet beautifully underplayed scene. Whilst dealing with all this fuss, Zen manages to solve several murders, a break-in and outwit some people out to kill him – all without breaking a sweat.
Strong characters aside, the show’s key selling point is the unique cinematic feel that the Rome location gives to the production. Rather than awkwardly shoehorning in the typical landmark sites, the visuals show off the beautiful architecture and exquisite statues. The setting is picture perfect and you can tell from the performances given that it helped the cast to immerse in their characters more completely.
‘Cabal’, the second story, is somewhat darker in tone and arguably not quite as quaintly charming as the first, bit nonetheless holds the attention effortlessly for another ninety minutes. The perfectly written sly comedy is still there, but the story has moved on slightly, with Zen now involved with the slinky Tania (Casino Royale Bond girl Caterina Murino) after casually agreeing to embark on an affair in Episode 1. The only downside is a story based around the semi-mythical religious superpowers that can control governments, which can veer between both far-fetched and dull.
If you’ve ever read the Aurelio Zen novels by the late Michael Dibdin, you will notice these are definitely somewhat broad adaptations. The books are so involved and the scenes change so fast that a TV audience would quickly get completely lost; so producers have wisely streamlined the threads into an easily digestible but still accurate depiction of Zen’s world.
Our hero is still recognisably the man as in the books and hopefully the series will encourage people who were previously unaware of Dibden’s writing to seek them out.
The final story, ‘Ratking’, plays like an Agatha Christie novel; one could almost see Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple solving the same crime. It’s a story chock full of twists and turns, with a final twist that explains everything in such clarity it’s a stroke of genius and a bittersweet ending for our serene lead man. Not everything is wrapped up and not everything is coming up roses.
Let’s hope that BBC One commission a second series for Aurelio Zen; the calmest, most polite and most watchable detective in many a year.
Released on DVD on 24th January 2011 by 2entertain.