Rocco Schiavone is a detective who discusses philosophy, quotes literature, and smokes like a chimney. He also has a disdain for authority, has friends mixed up in all sorts of criminal activity, has a disciplinary problem, and is facing profound personal loss.
That on its own is enough to make Rocco Schiavone: Ice Cold Murders (PBS Masterpiece) an interesting show. Weave in some great supporting characters and colleagues who range from the buffoonish to the smart and sexy, add a few bits of gorgeous Italian scenery, support it all with good plotlines, and, hey ho, you have a very compelling show.
Schiavone (Marco Giallini) is from Rome, and he’s very Roman. But we almost always see him on the mountainous slopes of Val D’Aosta in the Italian Alps, where he has been banished by the authorities for disciplinary reasons linked to a previous case in Rome. Indeed, the very first crime story takes place almost exclusively on the icy slopes of Val D’Aosta, involving a grizzly murder and a snowplow.
Schiavone takes up residence as Vice Questore (a rank he insists on correcting everyone who calls him simply Commissario), where he proceeds to chain-smoke cigarettes and weed, snarl at the incompetence of most of his colleagues and bosses, have loving conversations with his gorgeous wife (Isabella Ragonese), and rail at the cold as he misses his beloved Rome. All the while trying to solve what seems a very large amount of crime for such a sparsely populated area.
We are introduced to his habit of comparing personalities he comes across during investigations to different animals. We also learn about his scale of pain-in-the-ass life challenges with murders being a ten on a scale of one to ten. Tobacco shops being closed rates just one notch down (a nine). We never get to hear anything below a six.
There are three seasons of the show and, in the hope you haven’t seen it already, there is little point in saying too much about how it all develops in terms of subplots. Suffice to say the profound loss Schiavone suffers becomes clear early in the opening season, but continues throughout the series as he desperately tries to come to terms with it.
That loss suffuses all his other relationships — with colleagues, with authority, with a dog he adopts. The focus on relationships seems more intense and developed than in most U.S. shows, where too often, in my humble opinion, they are glossed over, relegated in importance.
As for the crime stories themselves, it’s notable that they take two episodes for each of them to be resolved. That seems an unusual approach when typically you either have a single episode story or a whole season with one crime to solve.
Whether that works or not is an individual choice; it certainly worked for me. The crime stories are, in a sense, incidental to the real story, which is the loss Schiavone faces and how such a loss is dealt with.
That’s where the real drama lies. He can only tolerate smart brains around him and it becomes clear very quickly whom he respects and for whom he can barely conceal his contempt. With the colleagues he respects and even takes under his wing, there is reciprocal respect, even love. The one-to-ten pain-in-the-ass scale, the constant smoking, the disdain for authority, the fact he continues to dress as if he is in Rome — all of these make him go up in the estimation of the team he leads. He becomes almost adored by the likes of younger, ambitious colleagues such as Italo (Ernesto D’Argenio) and Caterina (Claudia Vismara).
I find it hard to imagine a character like Rocco as a U.S. detective. Yes, U.S. dramas like to have a “maverick” detective, but I can’t think of too many current ones who love tobacco so much, who look at life quite so philosophically, who disdain authority at such a level and yet also show extreme compassion and empathy for suffering souls. That is why Rocco Schiavone is an Italian show, not an American one.