Your Final Moment of Zen: Ratking

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen in Masterpiece Mystery’s Zen/ WGBH
Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen: Looking more worn than his suit. / WGBH

It ends not with a bang but a whimper.

“Ratking,” the final episode of Zen on Masterpiece Mystery has aired, and as you may have heard, there are no plans to continue the series. Commence whimpering if you feel like it.

We bid farewell to Rufus Sewell, who played detective Aurelio Zen with such flair. (Continue whimpering.) If all goes as planned, we will see him again in June, 2012, when he appears in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (yes, really), a feature film based on the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith.

No Armani in that wardrobe.

It’s been interesting to follow the reaction to Zen, starting with coverage in the British press when the series aired in January, 2011, and was promptly cancelled in February, 2011. Viewership in the U.K. was strong, but apparently not strong enough. By the time Zen arrived here on PBS, the decision had already been made: love it or hate it, three episodes were all we were going to get.

I can live with that.

Once you looked past the scenery, the wardrobe and the undeniable charms of Rufus Sewell, the stories simply didn’t hold up. Zen never seemed to know what it wanted to be: Certainly not a straight police procedural crime drama, yet not breezy enough to be campy or satirical, let alone comedic. Rather than improving with each episode, making me feel more invested in the characters, the show floundered and I lost interest. (It’s never good when someone levels a pistol at a character you’re supposed to like and you think: “Shoot! Please shoot!”)

“Ratking,” which involved the kidnapping of a bazillionaire industrialist, was a jumbled mess. Like an actual rat king. (Since the show didn’t explain what that means, this will.  Trust me, sensitive viewers, it’s disgusting even without photos.)

Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen and Caterina Murino as Tania Moretti in Zen/ WGBH
Zen and Moretti: Romance seem squeezed? / WGBH
By Episode 2, the romantic subplot felt shoehorned in. By Episode 3, it was downright intrusive.

Zen’s cavalier attitude, which seemed appealing and rebellious early on, made him appear insensitive or possibly just oblivious in Episode 3.

And I still don’t know anything about the two guys Zen calls for favors. What is their role? How does Zen know them? What are their names? (Three episodes in, I shouldn’t need Google to help me find this out.)

Far too much was left unfinished or unexplained in this series.

But that’s not the worst part.

The worst part is that the series probably won’t prompt viewers to buy the books. And that would be a shame.

Ratking, the first of the Aurelio Zen novels, earned Michael Dibdin the Gold Dagger award on 1988 from the Crime Writers’ Association. “A notoriously stingy bunch of award-givers,” Dibdin quipped in a 2003 interview. Point being, the book wasn’t merely good, it was deemed better than a whole host of others by a jury of Dibdin’s peers. Ruth Rendell called it “tremendously exciting.”

I went back and read reviews of the novels. People loved them when they came out and they love them still. (More so in Europe than in the U.S. it seems. In a 1995 interview, Dibdin noted that both Ratking and Vendetta were out of print in the U.S.) Amazingly, however, the plot descriptions are wildly different from what was portrayed in the series—more complex, more original.

Mourners from Zen Episode 3 on Masterpiece Mystery/  WGBH
Mourners from Zen Episode 3: Guess everyone leaves unhappy here. / WGBH

Few who reviewed the TV series (myself included) seem to have read the Aurelio Zen books. I suspect that if they had, they’d have been much harder on the show. (Witness the kerfuffle over the casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher in One Shot, from the Lee Child novel, and fans haven’t even glimpsed the screenplay yet!) It was generally agreed that the Zen TV plots were flimsy. How much flimsier would they seem compared with the novels themselves?

Zen gave Rufus Sewell the chance to demonstrate that he can do more than play the baddie, which he’s done for most of his career. “I don’t feel undervalued, I just feel underused slightly,” he told The Telegraph in January. He’s right. He should be given a shot in another TV series. I know I’d tune in.

I’m starting to believe that Michael Dibdin’s novels have been, if not undervalued, certainly underused as well.

I think I’ll read Ratking, if only to find out what I’ve been missing.

 

You can still watch all 3 Zen episodes online through the end of the month at PBS.org, and all our Masterpiece Mystery posts, inlcuding Zen episodes “Vendetta” and “Cabal” at our feature page.


Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.

Comments

  1. akajill

    I have read many of the Dibdin books and loved the complex nature of the plot and the general Italian-ness (for lack of a better word) of, well, everything. Though the plots were a pale shadow of the books, I actually did like the series. It probably seduced me with the fact it was filmed in Rome and the gorgeous suits worn by Zen, but I don’t think that is a bad thing! They weren’t perfect, but I am sorry to hear there will be no more.

  2. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    I agree with you. I was seduced, but I didn’t fall in love. Ultimately, I think the series just wasn’t as good as it could have/should have been given the setting, the actors, the source material … and, of course, the suits.

  3. Walter wright

    I would have watched Rufus sewell as Aurelio zen for years, if fate had been so unkind as to lock him in for several seasons. The short series now frees me to read the books and I hope frees Sewell to do work worthy of his talents. This guy is good and I want more.

  4. Terrie Farley Moran

    @Leslie, thanks for doing a great job on bringing us up-to-date on this series. I bailed after watching the first episode but enjoyed following your posts each week.

  5. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    @Walter – I also hope he comes back soon.

    @Terrie – You are too kind. Inspector Lewis starts next week so never fear!

  6. Loved it

    I loved the series. Thought the characters were excellent. Loved that everything wasn’t explained, and want to read the books to find out more. Rufus Sewell was excellent!! Wish they would do more.

  7. jem

    I really liked the series, the characters, the mix of romance, drama and action (and yes, the nice suits). It was under-developed because it got cut after three episodes! Perhaps we’re starved of decent crime drama over here in Australia (most of my favourites are British), but I do wish there were a few more episodes of Zen. Just watched the third one and was wondering when the next would be shown, only to discover that was it! Feeling a bit frustrated 😐

  8. helene weiner

    I WATCHED ZEN WITH A SMILE ONMY FACE…THIS SHOULD BE A FEATURE FILM WITH WRITERS THAT CAN WRITE…THIS CANCELLATION WAS A BIG MISTAKE…A BIG MISTAKE….THIS COULD BE BIG ….VERY BIG!

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