This is a high-quality drama series produced for TV based around the detective books by Michael Dibdin about a detective called Zen who works in modern day Rome. Each 90 minute episode is a cut above the usual fare for TV detectives; these are effectively full length feature films which happen to be made for television.
Each episode is a stand-alone story based on Dibdin's early Zen books, and they benefit from Dibdin's careful character development and intriguing plots. The stories have been sympathetically adapted for the screen, keeping much of Zen's idiosyncratic behaviour and his delightfully dry wit. Although the crimes are often grim and the danger to Zen and his comrades is very real, these films incorporate a light, almost playful touch (especially as his office romance develops) which makes this series far less gruelling to watch than the recent Wallender adaptation.
Filmed in Rome, the camera work is very stylish, although not stylised. It makes the most of Rufus Sewell's good looks and his ability to wear a very sharp suit, and he perfectly portrays Zen's air of puzzlement when he has to deal with corrupt authority, the bureaucracy of the Italian police, the heavy hand of the Vatican, his wife who wants a divorce, office politics, gangsters with sawn-off shotguns, living with his mother, and seducing a beautiful secretary who has taken something of a shine to him. The first story, Vendetta, is not the strongest of the trio; Zen's artful talents come to the fore in Cabal, and Ratking is by far the best episode.
My only problem with these films is the somewhat weird attitude to local accents. The scripting is all English, and Zen speaks with a neutral accent. His girlfriend and mother speak with a pronounced Italian accent, and bystanders and background chatter is in Italian. That all seems reasonably consistent, and then other supporting actors suddenly start speaking in a broad Geordie, Mancunian, West Country or other British regional accent. It's extremely Odd. An explosive rant from Zen's boss, which would've worked fine with some Latin flourish, really didn't work in a `it's grim oop north' accent.
Strange accents aside, the Roman background couldn't be more evocative or deftly portrayed. Zen's Alfa Romeo roars along cobbled roads; he parks at a skew next to stupendous marble churches; a suicide leaps from a bridge into the Tiber. Visually, this series is very rewarding and, likewise, it is intellectually satisfying. I hope they make another three episodes for next year.