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Monday, April 15, 2013

Plagued By Da Vinci's Demons

Article first published as DA VINCI'S DEMONS Review at Seat42F.

Grade: 84%

Starz is launching a new series this week called DA VINCI’S DEMONS. Yes, that title refers to the famous artist and dreamer Leonardo Da Vinci. But rather than seeing an old, brilliant man, as most screen portrayals of the character have been, DA VINCI’S DEMONS picks up early in the figure’s life, when he is in his mid-twenties.

It makes sense that Starz would want this show to be young and sexy, just like its lead. While some networks might try for historical accuracy at least a little, DA VINCI’S DEMONS fits perfectly into the mold of a network that knows that skin and violence sell. What we get here is no boring retelling of events, but a larger than life, adrenaline-racing mix of mystery, magic, politics, and outsize personalities.

Da Vinci (Tom Riley, Monroe) himself is tortured by his incredible mind, and knows he is every bit as smart as he think he is. He does what he wants, when he wants, and has little regard for rules or societal norms, which offends many. He looks down on everyone, and is plenty willing to use and manipulate people to meet his goals, hoping his charm will save him from the consequences.

This doesn’t always work, of course. His chief detractor in the pilot, called “The Hanged Man,” is Da Vinci’s own father. Da Vinci is a bastard, and his dad resents what Leonardo is doing to his family’s reputation. Having recently fathered a legitimate heir, Da Vinci’s maker is not at all above chaining and beating his own son. Obviously, this takes daddy issues to a whole new level, and I don’t see any resolution between the pair ever happening.

But Da Vinci’s dad is small potatoes, when there is so much more at stake. “The Hanged Man” begins with the Duke of Milan (Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey) being assassinated, which throws the delicate balance between the lands, including Florence, where Da Vinci lives, into disarray. Da Vinci is determined to take advantage of the situation, tricking his way into an audience with Florence’s leader, Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan, Alexander), and getting himself hired as a military engineer.

One might think that Da Vinci would be satisfied with having such a position, but of course he’s not, tempting fate by taking up with Medici’s mistress, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock, The Inbetweeners Movie). This is the obligatory sex piece of the episode, as, because this is pay cable, there must be nudity.

Honestly, I feel like all of this is enough for a show. We’ve got the battles and the betrayals, a promise of action and war surrounding our protagonist, and plenty of plot. Yet, DA VINCI’S DEMONS doesn’t stop there, also bringing the Vatican and Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner, Bridget Jones’s Diary) into the mix, who has secret files. And there is a mystical group, represented by the mysterious Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig, Star Trek: Deep Space 9) searching for the so-called Book of Leaves, which supposedly contains lost knowledge of humanity.

On top of that, I’ve only gotten around to mentioning less than half of the main cast so far in my outlining of the story, so there are many minor things going on, too, that flesh out this world into a very complete, very busy place.

Yes, all of this makes for a very full, very exciting story. But it also presents a tad bit of a problem. If all of the things portrayed in DA VINCI’S DEMONS really happened, surely Leonard Da Vinci not only was a genius in his own right, but also contributed to a huge global power struggle, and likely helped save the world. This is not something that could possibly be covered up over the centuries, and so these additional plots basically toss any sense of historical fact right out of the window.

That being said, it is doubtful that the target viewer of this series is looking to learn about the past. This is going to appeal to the lovers of other Starz shows, like Spartacus, and it’s also kind of a more adult version of the British series Merlin. As such, most people who would watch will be satisfied with the impressive special effects, bare breasts, and scenes of posturing between powerful men.

Speaking of the effects, Starz has spared no expense. There are several visual treats in “The Hanged Man” alone, and none are flawed. The computer-generated magic is as good as the real magic within the story, and there’s little chance that viewers will be taken out of the experience because of them. Rather, they enhance the show.

Overall, while a little disappointed that the portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci isn’t more accurate, I did find DA VINCI’S DEMONS to be highly entertaining and worth watching. I don’t know if it will be any luckier than Starz’s short-live Camelot, but it seems to have taken that concept and kicked it up a notch, so it certainly has a chance. The acting isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s serviceable for the purpose. And the total package satisfies.

DA VINCI’S DEMONS premieres Friday, April 12th at 10 p.m. ET.

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