Sleuthing in Rome
The scenery is the star in the pilot episode of “Zen,” the new Masterpiece Mystery! series, launching Sunday, July 17. Based on the crime novels by Michael Dibdin, and produced by the folks who created “Wallander,” the series—which runs on Sundays through July 31 (check local listings)—features dark-and-handsome actor Rufus Sewell in the title role of Italian detective Aurelio Zen. But— at least in “Vendetta,” the first episode in the series—Sewell’s Zen doesn’t seem to have much personality: We keep hearing others talk about how honest he is (“It’s all a game, Zen. You just don’t know how to play it,” a successful colleague in the corrupt Rome police bureaucracy tells him). But a squeaky clean reputation and stylish suits alone hardly make for a compelling fictional character.
You don’t see him do much deduction either: He solves this initial puzzler—a murder case fraught with troublesome political ramifications—more or less by accident. Indeed, the episode is almost more of a thriller than a detective story. So fans of good old-fashioned brains-and-legwork sleuthing may find the program most memorable for the vistas: gorgeous Roman streetscapes and skylines; a picturesque centuries-old village perched at the top of a craggy hill; a roomy palazzo hemmed in by woods; and more. (The series was shot on location in Italy.)
Odd, then, that the team behind “Zen” should need to add another level of exoticism with decisively retro graphics and cinematography. The credit sequence, the slightly washed-out colors, even the odd swift camera tilt all recall movies from the 1960s or ’70s, even though the story is set in more contemporary times. You get the feeling that “Zen”’s creators are trying to give you the sense of travelling back to a simpler, happier time (a time that, of course, never really existed).
New York Times TV critic Ginia Bellafante has called the relatively optimistic “Zen” the antidote to gloomy Scandinavia-generated crime tales like AMC’s ultra-mopey “The Killing” (based on a Danish series). Here’s hoping we soon get a new detective show that hits a happy medium—more revelatory of life’s somber hues than “Zen” is, but not a positive downer, like the aforementioned AMC offering.