Thursday, July 14, 2011

Zen and the Art of Police Corruption

Aurelio Zen has a reputation for integrity. As a result, his career has stalled. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the higher-ups sometimes need a police detective of his intelligence and talent to handle especially sensitive cases. To survive, he will reluctantly learn how to play the political game in Zen, Masterpiece Mystery’s newest series based on the novels by Michael Dibdin, which premieres this coming Sunday on PBS.

Zen might just have the coolest opening credits ever. They certainly establish the Rome setting. However, Zen is Venetian—another reason the detective is such an outsider in the Roman force. In the series opening Vendetta, Zen is to vet the handling of a high profile murder case. His captain makes it clear Zen is supposed to sign off on the half-bungled investigation quickly and quietly. It will not be that easy. Amedeo Colonna, a powerful ministry official unofficially “requests” Zen sabotage the case against the politically connected suspect. Further complicating matters, Zen starts to think the accused might actually be innocent. Yet, whatever course of action Zen chooses, his career will likely suffer. This predicament will repeat for Zen.

Though Zen spends most of season one on thin ice professionally, his personal life heats with the arrival of the captain’s new civilian secretary, Tania Moretti, a beautiful woman going through an ugly divorce. In this gossipy backbiting environment, they try to keep their relationship on the down low. It is not clear how long this will be sustainable though now that Zen is increasingly assigned high profile cases. The second installment, Cabal, starts with an apparently open and shut suicide that Zen’s captain would like him to hurry up and close. This time the Ministry agrees, but prosecutor (and potential lover) Nadia Pirlo encourages Zen to keep digging.

Arguably the weakest link of season one, Cabal posits a shadowy uber-conspiracy in the tired Da Vinci Code tradition, right down to the furtive cell phones calls exchanged by limousine riding government officials and ominous Vatican Cardinals. Frankly, raising the intrigue to the macro level undercuts the series’ gritty portrayal of petty precinct politics and the grasping corruption of the officialdom above them.

The series concluding Ratking returns to its strengths, placing Zen in yet another Catch-22. Evidently, it is illegal to pay ransom to kidnappers in Italy. Nonetheless, Colonna wants Zen to facilitate such an exchange to ensure the safe return of a major party contributor. Unfortunately, Zen’s by-the-book interim captain is itching to bust him for any infraction. It would be business as usual for Zen, if he were not so aware a man’s life hangs in the balance.

Ratking might have the best twisty-turny crime store of the series. Not exactly whodunits or procedurals, Zen the series is more about watching the protagonist try to carry out his duties honorably, while negotiating the malevolent bureaucracy and petty departmental in-fighting.

Perfectly cast in the lead, ethnically ambiguous Rufus Sewell certainly passes for Italian. He also conveys the appropriate combination of righteous intensity and everyman resignation. Furthermore, the chemistry forged between his Zen and Caterina Murino’s Moretti is nothing short of electric. Frankly, even though it is always safely PG, Zen is still pretty darn hot by PBS standards.

Seen by a handful in the unfairly dismissed Garden of Eden and by the entire world in Casino Royale, Murino projects a smart and sophisticated sexuality, not unlike some of her legendary predecessors of Italian cinema. The supporting cast (partly Italian, but mostly British) provides plenty of color and verve, particularly Ben Miles as the stone cold Mephistophelean Colonna.

At one point Colonna tells Zen: “I didn’t know you had it in you.” Some might echo the sentiment after watching Zen on PBS. Sleek and stylish like an Italian sports car, but decidedly grubby in its depiction of police corruption, Zen is feature quality television. While Cabal need not be appointment TV, Vendetta and Ratking absolutely should not be missed. Unfortunately, Zen the series' future is somewhat up in the air in the UK right now, but viewers should not let that dissuade them. Even though most Zen’s personal life remains unsolved at the end of series one, it allows him to enjoy some temporarily last laughs that are well worth sticking around for. Definitely recommended, Zen debuts on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery with Vendetta this Sunday (7/17).

(Photos: WGBH)