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.)
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.
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.
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.