‘Mas­ter­piece’ gets ‘Zen’ when in Rome


Say “Zen,” and you may think of rocks, raked sand and tem­ple bells. But if you tune into the first of three “Zen” episodes at 9 p.m. Sun­day on Chan­nel 9 on PBS’ “Mas­ter­piece Mys­tery!” it’s more like wine, pasta and death knells.

Shot in and around Rome (where the story is set) and based on the pop­u­lar se­ries of mys­tery nov­els by the late Bri­tish-born au­thor Michael Dib­din, “Zen” stars Bri­tish ac­tor Ru­fus Sewell (“The Pil­lars of the Earth”) as con­tem­po­rary Ital­ian de­tec­tive Aure­lio Zen.

Set against the back­drop of the ca­sual chaos that is Ital­ian pol­i­tics, the first episode, “Vendetta,” finds Zen or­dered by his boss to con­firm the orig­i­nal find­ings in a closed case, while a jus­tice of­fi­cial with ul­te­rior mo­tives com­mands him to reach a dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion.

Mean­while, the di­vorced Zen is the tar­get of a venge­ful psy­cho­pathic killer and deals with his feel­ings for a mar­ried co-worker (Ca­te­rina Murino).

Known for his­tor­i­cal roles of one sort or an­other, Sewell found play­ing a mod­ern Euro­pean a nice change of pace.

“Nor­mally,” he says, “all I’m re­quired to do is sit on a horse and look an­noyed, so it’s more than usual.”

While Zen does wear nice suits and drive an Alfa Romeo — and lives with his mother — Sewell didn’t want him to be a “mam­moni,” one of a grow­ing trend of sin­gle Ital­ian men who live with their moth­ers while en­joy­ing a posh bach­e­lor life.

“It was re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant to me,” Sewell says, “that he wasn’t a man in a Porsche at a stop­light. That’s not who I’m play­ing. I was very in­volved in the choice of the car. It’s an Alfa Romeo, with a bash in the side, pa­per cups, lit­tle bit of a mess.”

When Sewell first looked at the script — and in spite of the char­ac­ter’s sur­name — he didn’t think of Zen as be­ing cool.

“The real plea­sure of it for me,” he says, “is the fact that he’s al­ways in a bad sit­u­a­tion. He’s al­ways one step be­hind. He’s not, for me, a win­ner.

“In the end, he’s not a bad guy. But the idea of him as some kind of cru­sad­ing moral­ist is to mis­un­der­stand him. He’s per­fectly ca­pa­ble of be­ing slip­pery and un­der­handed, on his own terms. That’s what makes him, as far as I’m con­cerned, hu­man.”

Ru­fus Sewell

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