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.

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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.