April 20, 2013

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “Da Vinci’s Demons”


DA VINCI’S DEMONS:  Friday 9PM on Starz

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’

Previously… on DA VINCI’S DEMONS:  In late 15th-century Florence, the young Leonardo Da Vinci (Tom Riley), bastard son of the chief notary to Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), is a brilliant inventor of flying machines and armaments.  (He also paints a little.)  The Vatican, which can’t pay its debts, has assassinated the Duke of Naples and is now after Florence, and Medici hires Leonardo to create the precursor to a set of repeating cannon.  Leonardo accepts the commission, even as he’s seducing Medici’s mistress Lucrezia (Laura Haddock).  But the laugh’s on both of them, because Lucrezia is actually a spy for a dark cabal within the Vatican whose chief agent is the evil Riario (Blake Ritson).  Riario’s group isn’t just interested in warfare–they’re after something called the Book of Leaves, which may contain the mysteries of the universe and which Da Vinci has been told by a mysterious Turk that he’s been entrusted to find and protect.

Episode 2:  As with many international cable co-productions, Da Vinci’s Demons was ordered straight to series, so its first episode wasn’t so much a pilot as a prototype.  The story and style, therefore, picked up where they’d left off, in an hour written by series creator David S. Goyer and Scott M. Gimple (the latter is the new showrunner for The Walking Dead), and directed by Goyer.  Both major storylines moved forward, and they meshed nicely at the episode’s conclusion, as Da Vinci used his new repeating cannon (after a disastrous trial run earlier in the episode) to blow away Riario’s troops.

Da Vinci’s Demons is moderate fun, but its weak points remain.  The Book of Leaves storyline suffers from an overdose of Dan Brown-itis, as this week Leonardo deciphered one clue to find a key in the stomach of a Jew hung by the authorities last week, and had the supposedly amazing inspiration at the end of the episode to realize that since the book (not the book) he’d found had an illustration for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the pages placed together under the light of the night sky (the “Vault of Heaven,” don’t ask) must form a map of where the Big Book is.  This stuff simply isn’t nearly as thrilling as Goyer clearly thinks it is.

The other shortcoming of the show is its tendency toward thin characterizations.  Da Vinci’s Demons is so busy making Da Vinci an action hero that it doesn’t give him much substance, and among the nobles and flunkies who make up most of the rest of the major players, only Riario makes much of an impression, although he’s weakened by the not-so-brightness that villains in action movies usually have.  (He all but tells Medici that he has a highly-placed spy in Medici’s court when the two men meet, and that either makes Riario an idiot or means he actually wants Medici to find and kill Lucrezia, which doesn’t make much sense.)  As for the show’s romantic plot, Lucrezia would have to be far more interesting than she’s been to justify Da Vinci and Medici’s joint passion for her (not to mention Riario’s lust).

Da Vinci’s Demons will have plenty of time to work on all of this (or not), since Starz has already renewed the show for a second season, despite a premiere rating of 0.4 in 18-49s that was decent for Starz but hardly remarkable.  Clearly Goyer sold the show on the basis of its being a rollicking adventure (and there was a zingy bit in this episode where Leonardo eluded Riario’s men by propelling himself up to the top of a cathedral under construction), but the show would be more interesting if it didn’t rely quite so much on fantasy and actually had something to say about its about its real-life time, place and characters.  A little less Demonology, a little more more Da Vinci.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  If Nothing Else Is On…

EPISODE 2:  With Grimm’s Move to Tuesdays, The Bar on Fridays Just Got Lower

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."