Zen debuts tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific, 8 p.m. Central/Mountain in most markets, as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery series. You should check local listings.
One of those old maxims of film and TV criticism is that it’s better to show than tell. But there are times when telling can work, and there are times when showing can be problematic. And then there’s Zen, PBS’ new Rufus Sewell-starring mystery series, which seems dedicated to the proposition that it’s best to both tell and show as often as humanly possible, sometimes over and over within the same scene. By the time tonight’s debut episode is over, you’ll probably have concluded two things: 1.) Italy may be a swarming hive of corruption, politically speaking, but man, it would be purty to live there. 2.) Detective Aurelio Zen is the most integrity-laden man in the whole world. He’s got so much of it, in fact, that the rest of us may as well pack up our bags and start being disingenuous. We just can’t compete.
From that tone, you might conclude that I wouldn’t recommend Zen, which isn’t exactly true. I think it has a fair share of problems, but it’s very nice to look at, and Sewell is damn good as the central character. It’s just that the show almost never trusts the audience to get the point and just move along with its story already (which can be a problem with the 90-minute episode format that Masterpiece Mystery seems to love bringing over from the United Kingdom). British broadcasters filmed this series on location in Italy, and the location work is predictably stunning, offering the kind of views of the city that double nicely as a travelogue and give the episodes a kind of epic sweep the storytelling doesn’t earn on its own. In its own way, this reminds me of The Chicago Code, which, if nothing else, used its Chicago locations very well. But since Rome is a much less familiar city to most of us Yanks (who see Chicago on TV fairly frequently), the “filmed on location” element becomes more of a draw.
The storytelling, however, is less of one. Zen doesn’t really bother with the whole thing where a bunch of suspects are set up, then knocked down one by one until only one makes sense as the murderer. By and large, it’s a story where the bad guys are fairly obvious (or outright shown) from the start, then we get to see Zen puzzle his way toward them. This is a murder mystery structure that can work—Columbo remains one of the best TV detective shows ever—but here, it’s employed in such a rote fashion that it can feel a little like the show made it obvious who was behind the killings in question, simply so it doesn’t have to bother with the messy work of actual mystery solving and police work. Indeed, one of the most important clues Zen needs to find in tonight’s episode literally wanders up to him, rather than him expending much effort to find it (though when he finally gives chase, it makes for one of the best sequences of the series).
It’s here I should note that the series is based on a series of novels about the Zen character, written by Michael Dibidin. It’s entirely possible the flaws in the storytelling on screen are present in the novels. (Despite PBS sending a copy of the novel along, I haven’t had time to dig into it and would appreciate any thoughts on the textual version of this story in comments.) And, yeah, this can all work if you know who the murderer is from the word go, especially if Zen’s methods to track down said murderer are interesting enough. But the crucial problem here is that the central idea of the series is that Zen is the one man with integrity in a corrupted political system. We’re told and shown this over and over and over, until it almost becomes hilarious how much we’re reminded of it (and how much we’re reminded that plenty of people don’t like his goody-two-shoes methods).
This is all meant to make Zen feel like kind of a fish out of water in Roman society—especially since Zen himself is from Venice, another thing we’re reminded of endlessly—but it instead seems a little clumsy and a little too much like stacking the deck against the main character. Dammit, his “being a good person” methods may be unorthodox, but they get results! I get that this is supposed to be an inversion of the usual “cop who plays by his own rules” story, and I theoretically enjoy the idea that this takes place in a society so corrupt that being a man of integrity becomes its own kind of rebellion. But the constant repetition and the need for this to underlie all story points eventually becomes ridiculous.
Fortunately, most of the other elements of the series are well-done. The direction is solid, with some pleasantly noir-like elements here and there. (Tonight’s premiere, especially, kicks off like this will be a far more hard-boiled detective show than it actually ends up being.) That whole “filming in Italy” idea ends up giving nearly every scene some visual flair, even if it doesn’t entirely earn that flair. And the performances, in general, are very good. Sewell seems all but made for this kind of role, often propping up scenes with weak writing with a kind of world-weary gravitas, while I also very much enjoyed Caterina Murino as Tania, a woman in Zen’s office with whom he has a slow-burn flirtation that occasionally flares up into assorted brush fires. I also quite liked Ed Stoppard and Michael McElhatton here, as they gave all of their scenes just the right level of authoritative drollness that you’d expect from someone entrenched in a system this corrupt and forced to regularly work with Zen.
It often seems like the watchword when making Zen was “sexy.” There’s a real attempt to make everything that happens look as gorgeous as possible, and the actors (particularly Sewell and Murino) seem to have been chosen for their sheer amount of combustibility. Lead writer Simon Burke (PBS lists this as being from “the team behind Wallander,” but as near as I can tell, that amounts to a few producers and no key creative personnel) exploits these elements about as well as could be expected, and he gets good mileage out of things like Tania being a bit unclear about whether she’s married or divorced or in the process of getting a divorce. But the storytelling remains too murky and muddled to lift all of the great surface level stuff up to the level of greatness or very-good-ness. Mysteries almost always have to be sharp and taut to work, and Zen feels mushy and unformed, even as everything up top is great fun to look at. Thus, it makes sense to air Zen in the summer, where your brain is perhaps ready to escape for Italy for a few hours and not think too hard about anything else. But it’s hard to be as drawn into it as other recent Masterpiece Mystery imports like Sherlock and Wallander, even as it tries so very hard.