Tuned In

TV Weekend: Da Vinci’s Demons

This Renaissance drama might have been really good, if only it hadn't had the freedom and budget of cable.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Greg Wiliiams / Starz Entertainment, LLC

I work from home a lot, which means I’ve had to train my kids to knock on my office door before entering in case I’m watching an extremely inappropriate screener. A few days ago, Tuned In Jr., who’s 11, knocked and came in as I was watching Da Vinci’s Demons (Starz, Fridays). The screen was paused on a scene that, fortunately, involved no nudity or torture. But the image was recognizably pre-Industrial Era, so he asked, “Is that Game of Thrones?”

No, I said, and I told him what it was about: a fictional story about the young Leonardo Da Vinci, who has swordfights and makes flying machines, builds amazing weapons for Florence and is driven by the pursuit of a much-mythologized book of ancient knowledge. It occurred to me then that it’d be exactly the kind of show I might watch with him—if not for the fact that, every so often, there’s a graphic disembowelment or f-bomb or a scene of the Pope bathing with a young boy and holding a knife to his throat. (Tuned In Jr. doesn’t watch Game of Thrones either, but he’s seen the promo material.)

That’s the thing about this swashbuckling, peculiar Renaissance mishmash. It’s certainly not a kids’ show. But it’s not an adult show either, except in the simplest ratings-system terms. The characters aren’t especially complex, though Leonardo (Tom Riley) is an enjoyable nerd rogue, half Macgyver, half Sherlock. There’s palace and religious intrigue–built mainly on conflict between the Florentine Medicis, Leonardo’s patrons, and the Vatican–but nowhere near the political complexity or philosophical ambitions of a Game of Thrones. Take out the impaling—both violent and sexual—and you have, basically, a sort of brightly geeky adventure story about how cool science and knowledge are.

Which is not a moral judgment—no one is obligated to sanitize their programming for my kids’ sake. It just makes it hard to say who Da Vinci’s Demons is for. If you like history-based drama, there’s eye candy enough, but there’s not the level of adult soap-opera entanglements as you’d find in, say, Showtime’s The Borgias. There’s pay-cable T&A, but not the pay-cable fine shadings of human character; Leonardo is an antic, rascally good guy, and his enemies are very, very bad. And while there’s ongoing story, the episodes are structured on the kinds of intellectual puzzles that could come from a kids’ historical mystery: Leonardo has to build a new kind of cannon! Leonardo must solve a string of demonic “possessions”!

There is one animating idea to the series, which comes from David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, FlashForward): it tells the story of the Renaissance as a battle between science and superstition. The show does a nice job illustrating, literally, how the scientific and creative process works; Da Vinci’s brainstorms come to life in animated sketch drawings, comparably to the British Sherlock. (The series focuses rather more on his inventions than his art, which so far is used to give us a chance to see undressed models.)

But the larger battles of philosophy are drawn, well, two-dimensionally, pitting Leonardo against sadistic, tyrannical minions of the Pope, who want to control information in service of their worldly power. “You want to suppress knowledge,” Leonardo says to one. “No,” the man answers silkily. “I want to administer it.”

This all makes Da Vinci’s Demons not a terrible show, nor a terribly good one, but a peculiar hybrid invention whose parts don’t match and that never quite takes flight. This Renaissance drama is at its best when it’s a very simple thing: a history-based caper about the wonders and power of knowing stuff. But it gets bogged down in the attempt to be the adult pay-cable drama that it’s not up to being, for no seemingly better narrative reason than that it’s on Starz.

I had a good enough time watching the three review episodes, but I’ll probably never watch another. Tuned In Jr. definitely isn’t watching it–at least until he’s much older, and by then I’d probably recommend something else. It could have been a fun, no-budget syndication-style drama; or a lighter-hearted costume lark like the British Merlin. For once, I have the opposite of the complaint I’ve had about so many shows: Da Vinci’s Demons might have been really good, if only it hadn’t had the freedom and budget of cable.

10 comments
midoriswtnsour
midoriswtnsour

I caught this on the second show and I was really captured into watching this series. Its something that I have to have no interruptions or else you've missed something that is important to the story. It's like having a good book and you can't let it go. I know that there is a few things that is off but I tend to let it go so I can enjoy the movie. Sometimes people get too " picky" over the little things and forget this is entertainment from watching kids, doing bills, having a boring evening ... so lighten up people. When I watch a movie and it gets translated to English they tend not to get the whole thing but I don't let it bother me....

I really hope it keeps going !!! I can't wait till Friday to see the next episode !!

pfanzhu
pfanzhu

God this show is awful. When I first heard of a show loosely based on Leonardo Da Vinci, I was really excited. Even if the show is not-so-historical, the potential that the context of this singular man offers is boundless. I was expecting a rich intriguing plot, to marvel at vastness of knowledge, and to glimpse the genius of one of the most complex and most celebrated man of the Renaissance. Instead, the plot isn't developing enough, focusing more on a dull 'case-of-the-week' format; the main character is stripped of any depth and reduced to a vapid, predictable, empty shell of a character; not to mention that the slew of supporting characters are equally if not more annoying, trivial, and nonsensical.

I stuck with this show for this long hoping it would get better. Now I just hopes it gets cancelled.

moo.moo
moo.moo

people complain about accents, yet i found something else much more insulting - in episode 2 there is a scene where leonardo questions a witness about a murdered jewish man. the witness states he did not understand the language murderers were speaking, he only understood the word "boat". and immediately leonardo goes to say (and i quote!) "those men must have spoken german because "boat" is the same in english and german".... excuse me, sir?? english?? are you telling me that you are speaking english in renaissance italy?? there were easy ways to get around the issue of the language - the witness could have just said he spoke german and overheard that murderers were from his country of origin.... but making the whole of italy speak english, even for the sake of fiction, is quite preposterous.

erykhmontero
erykhmontero like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ok... so a straight Leonardo DaVinci... who fights with swords... and is a "ladies man"... 

It bothers me. I just kept on thinking "if you are gonna take away the real essence of  the man, why not just base your show on another historical figure instead?" Someone perhaps who fits better into Starz´s concept of a hero.

Thought I see potential in the show and I recon it has an impeccable production, the truth that is seeing a show about  a man who is nothing like Leonardo DaVinci named Leonardo DaVinci puts me off. I´m not seeing any further of this crap!

spike
spike like.author.displayName 1 Like

The pilot is a complete failure.

Normally, I would say something like, “Any resemblance to the life of Leonardo da Vinci is purely coincidental,” but there is no substantive resemblance to the man and his life at all.

The writer can’t even get a few details down accurately. He didn’t let the birds free from their cages to study their flight. He bought them and set them free because he didn’t like them being in cages.

The writer doesn’t even have the most rudimentary understanding of what motivated da Vinci. And to substitute for that, he populates the pilot with sensationalist side shows which don’t have anything to do with a cohesive storyline. Moreover, any pretense of a storyline has only tangential reference to da Vinci.

This show promises to be a complete waste of money and a complete waste of time to watch, if one wishes anything more than shallow titillation (no pun intended). Stick to Batman and Superman, Pal. You’re in your element with comic book characters, and certainly not with one of history’s greatest geniuses. His profundity seems to be beyond you.

As to casting, the actor portraying da Vinci is a prancing, pretentious fop and is playing the man all wrong. He hasn’t got the slightest ounce of the gravitas which da Vinci had. Shallow, shallow, shallow. To give him his due, he had absolutely no insights about the man to work from. But he could have done his OWN research and done better than the writer.

Starz, you’re out of your element too. Stick to shallow entertainment and don’t venture into serious subject matter unless you want to pick the correct writer to do it with you.

AnnieM2009
AnnieM2009

I know we didn't want the show in Italian, but couldn't they have had Italian accents instead of British?

Lucelucy
Lucelucy

"brightly geeky adventure story about how cool science and knowledge are."  That one I would watch.  Was it Starz that had that Attila mini-series some time back?

marymacTV
marymacTV

@moryan i think a lot comes down to where you fall on "Assassin's Creed," of which I am a big fan.