Thursday, January 13, 2011

Zen, BBC 1

Zen is a police drama set in Rome, starring Rufus Sewell as a suave police inspector, famous for his integrity. We know this because everyone he meets says "ah! you are famous for your integrity!" Based on the best-known of British crime writer Michael Dibdin's books, the show has two main gimmicks. The first is that Zen is the honest cop's name ‒ Aurelio Zen, in fact, and though you might think that was almost, I don't know, a Japanese name, Signor Zen tells everyone who asks that it's Venetian. Or possibly Phoenician, my ears are a bit suspect. The second gimmick is that, despite being set in Italy, everybody talks in English accents, and peculiar, geographically unanchored English accents to boot. This makes everything very strange for the first 20 minutes of each episode as your brain tries to reconcile the gorgeous sunshine and Roman architecture with the cadences of Midsomer Murders. But once you've got used to it ‒ I do it by imagining that I'm watching a show set in very southern England ‒ or at least forgotten about it, well then there's a creditable if slightly silly cop drama to enjoy filled with swish cars, swarthy crooks and Italian coffee.

Interestingly, the women actors are Italians, not British, which, according to this review, is because Andy Harries, the show's producer, thinks that "there's something distinctive about the Italian female form". I'll say there is. And don't we get to revel in it when one lady strips three times in the course of a two-minute interview with our hero, while he does the old Napoleon Solo avert-your-eyes routine. My girlfriend thinks the woman actors are Italian so that they remain exotic and other, while we identify with good old English Aurelio. Or Andy, to his mates. But by making Sewell, who remains pretty much in swoon-on mode the whole time, a divorcee who lives with his mum ‒ because he's Italian, not because he's a loser ‒ they aren't exactly alienating the Milfs in the crowd either.

The main advantage of setting the stories in Italy, apart from the women, is of course Italy's gargantuan corruption, which constantly threatens to derail Zen as he swans about, with impeccable integrity, solving things. This provides most of the sub-plots as the viewer tries to estimate which of the dodgy-looking types are corrupt and which are just plain criminal. The other advantages are that it's mostly sunny, something not to be sniffed at when making January telly, and that everyone gets to wear expensive suits and dine in fancy-looking gaffs and generally inhabit a fantasy exotic land that the viewer is less likely to spoil by knowing much about. It's called having your panecotta and eating it. With its fetish for Italiana, both real and imagined, Zen is essentially the TV equivalent of Waitrose. But I quite like Waitrose, on occasion. And I quite like Zen, although I'm not hoping for any great enlightenment from it.