Watching the (foreign) detectives

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Sunday night I watched the BBC’s new detective drama, Zen. Despite being disappointed that it had nothing to do with Buddhism (Zen is a Venetian name, apparently), I really enjoyed it. It’s amazing how the detective format is so enduring – I guess it’s a particularly flexible basis for a good story (there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict, after all). It probably fits in nicely somewhere into Christopher Booker’s theory about the seven basic plots…in fact, come to think of it, it can quite easily contain elements of all of them (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth). Whether or not you subscribe to Booker’s theory, and there are good reasons not to, it still seems clear that the possibilities are pretty broad. Detectives deal with life and its conflicts both professionally and personally, and a great deal of fun can be had by mixing the two. How many TV coppers have had personal demons to deal with, whether it’s drink, a troubled marriage,  or a murky past? Or perhaps the more revealing question is: how many haven’t?

Anyway, back to Zen. It seems to me to be a clear spiritual successor to Kenneth Branagh’s turn as Swedish cop Wallander in the last couple of years – a foreign detective story, set and filmed abroad, played out in English (which is slightly unsettling, somehow). It even has the same sort of funky title sequence. While I certainly wouldn’t put Zen at the same level as Wallander (which, if you haven’t seen, you really should, if only for Branagh’s performance), it’s very enjoyable. It’s very stylishly shot in Italy, and despite a frankly ridiculous plot, it has a great script and casts an interesting light on the corruption and conflicting pressures of the police system. And yet, for all that, I think my favourite thing about it is its lightness of tone. Where Wallander makes heavy work of coping with a senile father, a failed marriage and an estranged daughter, there is something more than a touch comical about this Italian thirty-something still living with his mother, who seems to take everything in his stride. In fact, Rufus Sewell is so cool about everything that it’s slightly annoying:

Italian cool

Swedish angst

It’s also funny to hear the vast range of accents delivered by the “Italian” characters of the show – from Zen’s boss, a loud booming northerner, to Scots and Irish, and Rufus Sewell, who sounds like…Rufus Sewell. It probably doesn’t help that the love interest is played by Caterina Murino, as far as I can tell the only cast member who is, in fact, Italian.

Still, all a lot of fun. And God knows it’s more relaxing than inching my way through Sartre’s L’Etre et le néant or a French medieval epic, which is what’s on the cards otherwise. I’ve never been that good at dividing up my time into work periods and leisure periods – everything seems to blur together until I’m not really sure what I’m meant to be doing. It doesn’t help that in my time off I generally feel as if I should be doing something “worthy”, like writing (I write poems and other small things, when I can make myself do it). Montaigne would tell me to chill out, let life happen, no doubt. Not a bad idea at all, especially since I’ve only got ten days until I go back to Cambridge, and any normal sense of time and perspective is likely to evaporate.


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