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 serieswhich 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 seriesSewells Zen doesnt seem to have much personality: We keep hearing others talk about how honest he is (Its all a game, Zen. You just dont 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 dont see him do much deduction either: He solves this initial puzzlera murder case fraught with troublesome political ramificationsmore 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 Zens 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 AMCs ultra-mopey The Killing (based on a Danish series). Heres hoping we soon get a new detective show that hits a happy mediummore revelatory of lifes somber hues than Zen is, but not a positive downer, like the aforementioned AMC offering.
Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.