April 13, 2013

THE SKED PILOT REVIEW: “Da Vinci’s Demons”


DA VINCI’S DEMONS:  Friday 9PM on Starz – If Nothing Else Is On…

Starz has been searching for a signature original series it can call its own, especially now that Homeland has brought Showtime, arguably, into parity with HBO.  The Spartacus franchise was successful, but so heavy in sex and gore that it crossed the HBO acceptability line and became disreputable; Boss was so unrelievedly grim that it won respect but few viewers; Magic City just hasn’t excited anyone.  The network’s newest effort is DA VINCI’S DEMONS, which has the pedigree of being created by David S. Goyer, co-writer of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, although his other notable projects (Blade, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) are less classy, and his most recent TV credit was the ill-fated FlashForward.  On the basis of its first episode, written and directed by Goyer, Da Vinci doesn’t seem likely to give Starz what it’s seeking.

Set in late 15th-century Florence, Da Vinci’s Demons feels like a spin-off of The Borgias, with a sprinkling of Shakespeare In Love and, perhaps inevitably, The Da Vinci Code.  Our Leonardo (Tom Riley) is a brash, horny genius, who races from canvas to laboratory, inventing flying machines when he’s not sketching nudes.  His father is notary to Giulino Medici (Tom Bateman), who rules Florence and whose mistress Lucrezia (Laura Haddock) Da Vinci has plans to use in more ways than one.  The evil Vatican plots against Medici and has already assassinated the Duke of Naples (a brief, colorful cameo by Downton Abbey‘s Hugh Bonneville), even as it holds closely some as-yet unrevealed dark secrets, which are somehow involved with childhood memories Leonardo has repressed and, it almost goes without saying, a mysterious book that Leonardo has to find.  All of this is according to Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddiq), the Turk who gives Da Vinci some hashish-like substance to smoke and tells him he has a special, and perhaps supernatural, destiny.

This kind of hokum has become increasingly familiar in the Dan Brown universe, and Goyer doesn’t do much to make it fresh.  His Da Vinci, despite his much-vaunted brilliance, comes off as callow and colorless in the early going, and the other characters are even sketchier, a collection of arrogant noblemen, tolerantly inferior colleagues and women who can’t resist him (even the ones who are plotting against him).  We see Da Vinci’s inventions like a glider and a mechanical flying bird, but the sequences are mostly notable as special effects set-pieces rather than revealing anything about his character.  The show’s look, too, is the familiar one of Borgias, The Tudors, World Without End and their cable series like.  So far there’s nothing in Da Vinci that suggests the kind of depth or surprise that makes Game of Thrones incomparably the champion of this genre.

There are no breakouts immediately apparent among the cast, either.  Riley runs around energetically and one-ups everyone as Leonardo, but there’s no subtlety to the performance; the women are lovely and little more, and the other men barely register.  While Goyer keeps things moving well enough, his script isn’t notably witty or ingenious.

Fridays are quiet nights on television, now that Fringe and Banshee are gone, with little more than Grimm and the last sputters of (hopefully just the ABC version of) Happy Endings‘ to entertain.  There was a wide-open space for Da Vinci’s Demons to make an impact, and perhaps it will find an audience looking for something to watch–but it won’t lift Starz to the level of its pay-TV brethren.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."