March 23, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Da Vinci’s Demons”


DA VINCI’S DEMONS:  Saturday 9PM on Starz

In its second season, Starz’s DA VINCI’S DEMONS continues to be less fun than it seems like it should be.  The series concerns a “Leonardo Da Vinci” who’s about as historically accurate as “Matt LeBlanc” is on Episodes, an Indiana Jones-ish adventurer who’s hip-deep in mystical skullduggery when he’s not seducing ladies, saving the world and inventing everything this side of an LED TV set and the Netflix to stream on it.  (Also, he paints a little.)

The Season 2 premiere, written by series creator David S. Goyer and Supervising Producer Corey Reed, and directed by Charles Sturridge, picked up in the midst of the cliffhangers left by last season’s finale, with the Di Medicis of Florence under attack by the Rome-backed Pazzi family, and Lorenzo Di Medici (Elliot Cowan) having just discovered that Da Vinci (Tom Riley) had been sleeping with Lorenzo’s own mistress, the secretly traitorous Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), and vowing to kill Da Vinci if the Pazzis somehow don’t.  Meanwhile, if Da Vinci could only save his furious liege without dying himself, there was a boat in the harbor waiting to take him to South America, which he’d figured out was the location of the magical Book of Leaves, an object that Da Vinci’s visions have told him will allow him–or evildoers–to shape the future, also being hunted by the Pope and his chief henchman, Da Vinci’s nemesis Count Riario (Blake Ritson).

The premiere was as action-packed as its TV-scale budget would allow, with Riario in pursuit of Da Vinci and Di Medici, as well as trying to find out what Da Vinci knew about the Book, while the Pazzi forces went after the rest of the Di Medici family, including his wife Clarice (Lara Pulver).  Along the way, Da Vinci saved the life of Di Medici by inventing the blood transfusion (which wouldn’t actually be invented for another century), and a flash-forward prologue informed us that Da Vinci and Riario would both, in fact, end up in South America at some point (where the historical Da Vinci never went), on the verge of being executed by Incas.  Both Lucrezia and a colleague of Da Vinci’s found themselves in dire danger at Riario’s hands by the end of the hour.

There was plenty going on, to be sure, but it was all silly without being very funny or captivating.  Turning Da Vinci’s life into a comic book story has reduced him to no more than a comic book hero, without believable stature or shading (he might as well be Leonardo Jones), and Riley hasn’t been able to build him into any more than that.  Goyer’s insistence on soaking the material in supernatural fantasy is meant to increase the stakes, but instead it lessens them by making Da Vinci even more removed from any semblance of real life.  All of the characters, in fact, are purely functional, except for Ritson’s Riario, whose foiled-again! villainy has some weight.

Goyer is both overly ambitious and not ambitious enough.  Clearly, he craves the visual scale of a feature film (he was one of the writers on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series), and while the period trappings of Da Vinci are reasonably convincing, there’s no room in the budget (the show is co-financed by Starz and the BBC) for the kind of battles and special effects he loads into the scripts, leading to sequences that are more tacky than powerful.  The series has the overcomplications of a historical drama grafted onto the cut-rate “Chosen One” mysticism of a million sci-fi sagas, and ends up shortchanging both of its genres.

Da Vinci’s Demons didn’t find much of an audience on Starz last season, premiering well after a Spartacus finale, but soon sinking to a 0.1 rating in 18-49s for its season finale and fewer than 400K total viewers.  (Starz, as is its usual practice, renewed the show for a second season immediately after the series premiere.)  This year, the network has moved it to sleepier Saturday nights, where it will take the place of the somewhat more successful Black Sails.  Nothing in the Season 2 premiere suggests a show that will attract new viewers, but it remains to be seen whether the South American storyline will mean that the series leaves historical Italy and move into outright fantasy action-adventure–and whether that will help or hurt.

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."