Zen — "It's Venetian," he says — is played by Rufus Sewell (TV's "The Pillars of the Earth"); his love interest is the seemingly unobtainable and married secretary Tania (Caterina Murino, "Casino Royale"). Although the episodes are in scrambled order compared to Didbin's books, you wouldn't know it, as they have been adapted into a fitting, overall arc that never fails to intrigue or satisfy.
The first, "Vendetta," skillfully juggles three plot lines: There's an ex-con out for revenge for being sentenced to life for a killing he claims he didn't commit; a triple murder that Zen is asked to break before the case before he gets to court; and Zen's attraction to Tania, which threatens to balloon into an affair. The story is unpredictable, taking viewers to places they wouldn't expect.
The "Cabal" of episode two isn't just a secret organization, but only, as Zen is told "the greatest criminal conspiracy in Italian history." He gets in the thick of it after a man dies falling from a bridge onto the pavement below, and the case is obviously not a suicide.
Meanwhile, Zen deals with his divorce and keeping his new affair with Tania a secret — difficult, given her curve-hugging silk blouses and skirts). Her appearance is just part of the series' supreme sexiness; and Zen's interview with a "courtesan" as she tries on different dresses for an impending "business meeting" is so charged, you'll wonder if the execs at PBS ever flinched when they imported the show for stateside viewing on "Masterpiece Mystery."
Finally, "Ratking" finds Zen under intense scrutiny with the arrival of a new chief, as our antihero is asked to negotiate the kidnapping of a well-known corporate head who was not released after his ransom was delivered — at a fatal drop-off, no less. The only unfortunate thing about the episode is that it's the last we're likely to see, but this season finale ends on a note that gives closure, more or less, to the entire series.
Heavily influenced by '60s Italian films — those zooms! — "Zen" radiates a smoky cool, staring with its winning opening credits. These set the mood with their Saul Bass-esque visuals and catchy, lounge theme by Adrian Johnston. This vibe is carried through cohesively, despite each episode having a different British TV director (John Alexander, "Sense and Sensibility"; Christopher Menaul, "The Forsyte Saga"; and Jon Jones, "Northanger Abbey"), but certainly, actually shooting in evocative Italy helps.
Sewell has never been more likable; despite his character's flaws, you root for him completely. Murino burns hotter than the cigarettes they share, and the camera clearly loves her (or at least the directors behind it do); thankfully, writer Simon Burke (TV's "Strike Back") gives her much more to do than settle for window dressing.
The greatness of "Zen" is summed up at the close of the first episode, when the protagonist is told, "Detective! What a thrilling denouement! Car chase, shoot-out, seven murders solved and an innocent man set free. Quite incredible."
I wholeheartedly agree. —Rod Lott