Da Vinci’s Demons spoiler-free episode 1 review: The Hanged Man

Ron checks out the first episode of Starz's newest historical adventure series, Da Vinci's Demons...

When looking to launch a new television series of any sort, the first thing you need to have is a protagonist that people are interested in. In the case of Da Vinci’s Demons, a swaggering co-production of the Starz Network in the United States and BBC Worldwide, that box is checked but good. Indeed, the centerpiece of Da Vinci’s Demons is Leonardo Da Vinci, one of history’s most fascinating characters, albeit not one known for sexcapades and intrigues. 

In the real world, Da Vinci was a true Renaissance man before the term was invented, a polymath who excelled at engineering, painting, sculpting, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, music, anatomy, geology, cartography, botany, writing, and pretty much any other pursuit he put his considerable mind towards conquering. He shares these traits with the fictional Da Vinci, brought to life by Tom Riley, and builds on the considerable legend with an interesting conglomeration of personality traits, physical tics, and clothing items plucked at will from the universal closet of pop culture heroes. He’s got the arrogance and penchant for talking his way through problems most associated with Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Sherlock Holmes; he also shares Holmes’ love of opiates. He’s got a nice leather coat/shirt hybrid that serves as a good reminder of Nathan Drake or Drake’s inspiration Indiana Jones; to strengthen the Jones connection, Da Vinci also has a pouch and notebook, just like Dr. Jones. The show takes great pains to make him both clever and funny, with a little toughness thrown in for good measure. 

The character, or the show itself, seems to be borrowing a lot from other sources. Much like the first Starz breakout series, Spartacus, Da Vinci’s Demons takes a previously established character – in this case a real Renaissance artist – and plucks the good bits from his back story while throwing out the unnecessary or messy bits. An impressive number of details about Da Vinci make it into the real show thanks to the pen of writer/director/creator David S. Goyer. Both real and fictional Da Vinci are vegetarians. Both real and fictional Da Vinci would buy caged birds and set them free. Both Da Vincis have recounted memories from their childhood, one involving a falcon landing on his crib when he was six months old and the other involving horrors taking place within a cave. Both Leonardos are bastard sons of a nobleman and a servant girl from the Middle East. 

Of course, the show takes a lot of liberties with Leonardo as a person. His hair and beard are short. None of them really dress in the fashion of the time as far as we know, save the villains in cassocks. There were a great deal of intrigues and wars between Italian city states during Leonardo’s time, though he probably wasn’t involved in any conspiracy stuff or secret societies during his time as an artist for multiple feuding patrons. It’s sprawling, covering Florence, Milan, and the Vatican itself in its scope, and it seems to have created an interesting cast of characters by mixing the real world and a fictional version of the real world. 

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It’s the sort of historical fiction that seems to work well for television. HBO and the BBC had Rome; Starz has Spartacus, and with Spartacus winding up its run as the home for blood, guts, intrigue, gratuitous nudity, profanity, and all things that make a top-notch cult television show, the time is right for a replacement. This just might be the right blend to replace Spartacus. There’ll be less killing, but definitely as much or more sex and a nice layer of intrigue. Showtime has The Borgias, HBO has Game of Thrones, and Starz has this. It has the potential to scratch the Spartacus itch for Italian peninsula drama without reaching into the Borgia territory (though they are awfully close historically). 

There’s a problem, though, or potential problems. The first episode is pretty good about building the world, but good luck figuring out which bearded man is which, and who is aligned with who, or why that guy is so threatened by Leonardo. We get a feeling for what’s to come, but it never quite finds traction. Ditto for the show’s tone; this could very easily go awry into the realm of cheese. After all, this is from the guy who wrote Demonic Toys and The Puppet Masters in addition to coming up with the stories for the Christopher Nolan Batman films. There’s a lot of cheese potential in him, and also in the show. 

However, from the pilot episode, it seems as though the cheese is in the right proportion to the meat of plot, sauce of acting, and crust of setting. There’s something to be said for a guilty pleasure, and Starz is proving to be the network of guilty pleasures. If anyone can pull this off and make it entertaining (or entertainingly bad), it’s the Spartacus network. 

Da Vinci’s Demons starts in the US on Starz on Friday the 12th of April and in the UK on Fox a week later on Friday the 19th of April. Read our interview with actors Tom Riley and Laura Haddock, here, and with Lara Pulver and Blake Ritson, here.

US Correspondent Ron Hogan thinks Da Vinci’s Demons will be either great or terrible, with no middle ground. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.