June 8, 2013



Starz’s DA VINCI’S DEMONS was unsatisfactory in just about every respect, all the way through to tonight’s Season 1 finale, a cluster of cliffhangers that resolved almost nothing.  Watching the end of Season 1, it was fairly clear that this had been envisioned and probably budgeted by Starz and its production partner the BBC as a show with a minimum run of at least 2 seasons, and Starz’s supposed early renewal a few days after the premiere had been a mere formality.

David S. Goyer’s concept for Da Vinci as series creator (the finale was based on his story, with a script by Consulting Producer Brian Nelson and Co-Producer Corey Reed; it was directed by Michael J. Bassett) pushed it in three directions, none of them original:  as a fictionalized action-movie style biography of Leonardo Da Vinci (think the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr version of Sherlock Holmes), a Da Vinci Code-like trail of mystical signs and clever historical clues for Da Vinci himself to follow, and a Tudors/Borgias-ish lusty historical saga.  None of these worked particularly well.  (A few days before the much-heralded release of Man of Steel, let’s all swallow and try not to worry too much about the fact that Goyer is credited as sole writer of its screenplay, a credit he shared with others on all the Dark Knight scripts that are his main claims to fame.)

The Da Vinci parts of Da Vinci’s Demons were mostly silly, amounting to “Hey!  Look what I invented this week!” as the show had him, in an elapsed time of just a few months, coming up with cannon, grenades, fireworks, scuba-diving and (not a joke) the end of The Wizard of Oz, among other things.  As played by the not-terribly-charismatic Tom Riley, Da Vinci was callow and frenetic as he attempted to convey feverish genius, and the depiction was sensationalistic without being fun.

The Da Vinci Code section of the show probably wasn’t any dumber than Code itself, but there was a lot more of it over 8 hours.  Da Vinci was introduced by mystical Turk Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddiq), a member of the amorphous Sons of Mithras, to the missing Book of Leaves, which apparently contains all the mysteries of the universe and is somehow linked to Da Vinci’s mother, presumed but perhaps not dead.  There was the usual blather identifying Da Vinci as the “chosen one” foretold by the spirts/gods/forces of nature, and all sorts of invisible writing and hidden designs and patterns that only Da Vinci could find and interpret.  He was almost on his way to South America to continue his search for the Book at the end of Season 1 when the need to enter into Cliffhanger-Land waylaid him.

The only portion of the show that occasionally worked was the historical saga about the Medicis and Florence’s war with Rome and its Pope.  Some of the double-crossing here was moderately well done, and several scenes allowed the show’s character actors (especially Blake Ritson as the totally evil Count Riario–he seemed to think he was playing a Nazi–and James Faulkner as a brutal Pope Sixtus IV) to chew a fair amount of scenery, but even these were often spoiled by clunky dialogue.  In addition, the key character of these sequences was Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), who was here depicted as mistress to both Lorenzo Medici and Da Vinci as well as being a ruthless Roman spy, but she was a flat character, never as interesting as she needed to be.  (The most idiotic of the finale’s cliffhangers had Medici, his life just saved by Da Vinci as the murderous forces of Rome blew up the door to their hiding place, realizing that Da Vinci had also slept with Lucrezia and telling him that even if they survived the attack, he’d kill Da Vinci himself–it was the sort of thing you’d normally find in a self-aware buddy comedy.)  All the finale resolved in this storyline was the death of Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman)–but not before he impregnated Vanessa (Hera Hilmar), another associate of Da Vinci’s.

Even the physical scale of Da Vinci was disappointing compared to other historical cable dramas like Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones.  Although the finale had one big sequence in the cathedral where Rome’s minions planned to poison the Medicis on Easter Sunday, most of the episodes were clearly shot on a budget, and the green screen-driven attempts to reconstruct Da Vinci’s processes of inspiration and spiritual hallucinations were just tacky.

Although it was barely watched (by just a few hundred thousand people), and drew little if any significant buzz, Da Vinci’s Demons will be back for a second season in 2014.  Perhaps with several months to plan and rethink the path of its initial season, it can muster something more worthy of its protagonist next time around.

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."