Da Vinci’s Demons debuts tonight on Starz at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Da Vinci’s Demons is the answer to a question no one has ever asked: What would happen if you took all the cutscenes from the Assassin’s Creed video game series and tried to turn them into a television series? Both the television series and the game series tread into the world of secret history, in which vast battles are waged that determine human history yet are kept well within its shadows. Early in the pilot, a shadowy figure warns the titular hero that the events that shall unfold will never make it into the written annals of history. But rather than embrace the freedom that such a concept allows, Da Vinci’s Demons suffers from a lack of imagination and narrative ambition. For a show purporting to unlock the secrets of history, there’s very little that seems worth unveiling.
Starz has made several attempts to make history (or at least historical fiction) fresh, starting with Spartacus, continuing with Camelot, and now with this David Goyer-penned entry in the genre. But Da Vinci’s Demons falls much further under the banner of the latter, leaving viewers wondering what exactly the specific point of analyzing the life and times of Leonardo Da Vinci is. There are a dozen ways in which a series based around Da Vinci might produce a solid series. But rather than lock into one and build a world around a central concept, Da Vinci’s Demons throws in the entire kitchen sink to see what sticks. You want to see how Da Vinci’s mind works? It has animated sequences detailing his thought processes. You want to see a battle between secret religious societies? It has more than a few of those in play from the opening moments. You want to see Da Vinci solve crimes as a Renaissance-era Sherlock Holmes? It’s got cases of the week in most installments. You want to see the most brilliant mind of his (or almost any) generation act like a huge dick while wearing the same leather coat sported by a dad going through his mid-life crisis? This is the fucking show for you, people!
The fault for the Da Vinci seen onscreen probably lies partly, but hardly fully, with Tom Riley. His Da Vinci is all over the map because Da Vinci’s Demons is all over the map, never sure how much it’s winking at its anachronisms and how much it wants to take them seriously. As such, there are probably meant to be taken seriously yet inspire nothing so much as riotous laughter. (Two words: robot bird.) The pilot establishes that there’s no real need to adhere to history, since The Powers That Be will ensure their version gets passed down to future generations. So anything and everything can go. But what unfolds is a curiously staid set of events that don’t feel erased from history rather than simply omitted for space. This isn’t about overwriting the truth so much as excising the boring parts.
And yet, to speak directly about some of the events that unfold in the first half of the season, Da Vinci’s Demons sounds anything but boring. The show centers around Da Vinci’s involvement in a brewing war between The Vatican and the Florentine Republic, led by Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan). Underpinning this war is the search for a possibly mystical artifact known as The Book Of Leaves, which is located in something called The Vault of Heaven. You either read that last sentence and say, “Sold!” or read it and say, “Fuck it, I’m out, thanks for the warning!” But in reality, the quasi-magical stuff in Da Vinci’s Demons doesn’t either make or break the show. It’s just one element, stuffed in with spies and interfamilial strife and robot birds. Everything is thrown in under the assumption such conflicting elements build a world, whereas the exact opposite occurs. The overall effect is one that betrays a lack of courage in the show’s convictions. In trying to be about everything, the show really stands for nothing.
The plot of Da Vinci’s Demons consists of a multifaceted search for The Book Of Leaves, but that book is also tied in to a search for clues about Da Vinci’s mother. Early in the pilot, we see a young Da Vinci head into a cave, and if your mind instantly jumps to a certain film franchise, well, it’s worth noting that Goyer helped craft the stories for the recent Batman cinematic trilogy. But while Goyer works well when paired with visionaries such as Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro (with whom he collaborated on Blade II), he’s less successful when not tethered to another, greater talent (Flash Forward, Blade: Trinity). There are hints in Goyer’s solo work of what makes his collaborations so successful, but the overall effect is a first draft in desperate need of a rewrite.
The strongest aspects of the show when Da Vinci is put into direct conflict with his central antagonist in the series, Count Girolamo Riario. Played by Blake Ritson, Riario comes from the same world as Alan Rickman’s Sheriff in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Both Ritson and Rickman exist in alternate, more interesting iterations of the narrative in which they find themselves stranded. Ritson is too campy by half, but that’s only because the rest of Da Vinci’s Demons is played almost entirely straight. (To quote The Joker: “Why so serious?”) Ritson chews scenery, wears what can only be described as Renaissance Ray-Bans, and commands audience attention each time he appears onscreen. Riario also has a connection to Da Vinci’s past, present, and future, and the way the show teases that both are on skewed versions of the same quest is the only thing worth praising in its first four hours.
When Riario isn’t onscreen, most of Da Vinci’s Demons turns into an exercise in endurance. Each episode clocks in at close to 60 minutes, but there were more than a few times I glanced at the amount of time passed in an episode and all but groaned in frustration. To its credit, Da Vinci’s Demons makes each episode feel like a self-contained piece unto itself, not merely a slice of an eight-hour film. But the show covers roughly a dozen main characters, of which only two or three really hold any interest. Sherlock fans might be excited by Lara Pulver’s name in the credits, but her character barely registers for the first four installments. Da Vinci has a host of people who either indulge his genius or help spark it, but they remain two-dimensional throughout. The conflict between The Vatican and Florence remains opaque and unengaging because neither Medici nor Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) serve as anything more than pieces on a narrative board. (And in case that wasn’t obvious, there’s an entire episode in which a mysterious prisoner teaches the rules about a board game that just so happens to coincide with the overall plot of the episode. Because, ALLEGORY.)
There’s a decent show deep in the mire that is Da Vinci’s Demons, and if there’s anything positive to say, it’s that Spartacus was pretty much horrible through its first four installments and turned into one of the best shows of this past half-decade. The Book Of Leaves might not solve this show’s problems, but the search for it could let this program’s freak flag fly proudly. This is a show that gave itself permission to be as historically inaccurate as it felt, yet clung to facts about the life and times of Leonardo Da Vinci the way Linus Van Pelt clings to his blanket. Trimming the narrative fat and making this a journey between two brilliant men both blessed and cursed (literally and figuratively) by destiny could yield a solid series in the end. Until then, viewers will have to wade through a morass of overheated dialogue, undercooked drama, and an unwavering sense of missed opportunity.