The BBC has struck it rich with this riveting detective series! Although I have not read the Michael Dibdin mysteries, and I therefore cannot say how faithful the series is to the books, I have spent nine memorable years in Rome, and I can assure viewers that as far as the locations and settings of Rome and its environs are concerned, "Zen" can be graded d'oro puro--pure gold.
The mostly British cast are at their usual best, and if the aristocratic English and slightly regional accents among the police detectives strikes an odd note at first (add to that mix the Italian accent of Caterina Murino), one soon becomes so absorbed in the story that the anomaly becomes unimportant. The mixture of British accents is analogous to what would be the mixture of university-educated detectives and the Italian version of police constables, a condition that would be lost with pseudo-Italian accents, no matter how well done, especially considering that Zen, convincingly acted by Rufus Sewell, is a Venetian. The sense of verisimilitude is maintained by extras shouting at each other every now and then in Italian (Rome is a very noisy city). The sound is especially good, down to the two-note police siren which goes flat by several keys with the doppler effect as the car passes by and heads off into the distance.
The carefully crafted plots of these crime stories hold political overtones, which, even though the books were written in the 'eighties and 'nineties, seem equally valid today, as little changes in a city where patronage and politics (and, unfortunately, the criminal underworld) have been walking hand-in-hand for over 2000 years--so long that the very boundaries between the spheres have become blurred. The scene which portrays Zen calling a friend who knows someone, who knows someone else, who can get an elegant apartment rent-free, rings so true that one knows that Mr. Dibdin has actually lived in Rome, where one does not get an apartment by looking in the classifieds but by knowing someone who knows someone else [This timeless state of affairs was parodied in an Italian comedy in which Nino Manfredi played a reluctant hit-man, who outsourced the job, calling his brother-in-law, who called his cousin, who called his son-in-law, who called his lawyer, who called . . ., etc., etc., so that the dastardly deed never got done (much to the merriment of the Italian audience).].
The camera takes Aurelio Zen (and us) into the great chambers of the grand country villas as well as the dense laurel forests, underground caves, and crystal pools of Lazio, in scenes that had me holding my breath as Zen is forced to dive under water (The ghastly possibility of losing a flashlight is one that I once envisioned as I was escorted down to one of the lower galleries of the catacombs of San Sebastiano to view a third-century sarcophagus). The camera also allows us to follow Zen as he walks along the narrow cobbled streets and up the sweeping staircases into the forty-foot ceilinged frescoed rooms of apartments of palazzi built in the Renaissance--impossible to replicate in a studio--grand buildings, the façades of which are sadly marred by twenty-first century gang graffiti. Even though when Zen tells the driver to turn on the Via del Corso, and the car turns into Viale di Trastevere--on the other side of the Tiber--it doesn't matter in the least! It is the ambience that is important, not the exact route or the fact that the street might be one-way in the opposite direction. As the camera shows Zen leaning against a doorjamb of pitted travertine, or it lingers on Zen sipping an espresso, we are there with him. One can almost smell and taste that divine coffee, which, to me, recalls the essence of Rome!
P.S. I just learned on the other side of the Pond that the Beeb has cancelled the series--no doubt, their 'swingeing' budget cuts. Not only is it expensive to film in Rome, but it is also chaotic working under the threat of strikes, which occur constantly.
PSST! I just downloaded the series in HD from I-tunes with a very reasonably-priced season pass. Under the circumstances, I'm glad I did!