Charisma and presence are hard to define.  So too is the chemistry between actors; it’s one of those things that you know when you see it. I mention this because I happened to watch the BBC show Zen over the past couple of days. On reflection, if ever I was offered the opportunity to cast a mystery drama the actor I’d start with is Rufus Sewell.

Sewell, who caught my attention as Dr. Jacob Hood in the short-lived, and I thought rather good, CBS show Eleventh Hour plays the titular character, Italian cop Aurelio Zen. Based on the series of books by the late Michael Dibdin, there’s an initial requirement needed to jump past the incongruity of a series shot on location in Italy, but with the majority of the Italian characters played by non-Italians with English accents. It’s a little weird, but I urge you to get over it because the three 90-minute mystery dramas are well worth the effort.

Aurelio Zen is a man limited in some ways by his reputation for scrupulous honesty. Anyone with a more than passing interest in the Italian justice system is aware of shall we say its interesting decision making processes and as such Zen’s “flaw” fits neatly in contrast within those stereotypes that we maintain. Sewell has such a wonderful voice and delivery that I could listen to him all day as he weaves his way through each case.

The show starts with a nice little theme that evokes almost a Grecian sensibility. Certainly it imparts a southern European feel and sets the stage nicely. As noted the series was shot on location in Italy and the architecture and countryside really do add an additional level of authenticity and depth.

Italian actress Caterina Murino, best known for playing Solange Dimitrios in the fairly turgid Daniel Craig James Bond reboot Casino Royale, is the love interest who also happens to be the personal assistant to the Zen’s boss, the Chief of Detectives. The chemistry between Murino and Sewell is undeniable and unlike most personal back-stories, this one enhances the show rather than the usual filler.

I was unaware of the original novels prior to watching the show and so can’t speak to how they have been adapted. However the third episode of the show is taken from the first book and by implication there is a significant change based on the introduction of a new character. In retrospect I suspect that was a mistake and contributed ultimately to the cancellation of the show after its initial run. A shame really as this had some real potential.

Shown on PBS in 2011 as part of their Masterpiece series – yeah I missed it too – Zen is only available with a Hulu Plus subscription, but like New Tricks is another good reason to upgrade from the regular free Hulu service.

— Wallace Poulter