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Spring 2013 Review: Da Vinci’s Demons

4 Sep

His demons

An initial dislciaimer: Da Vinci’s Demons is a ridiculous show.  For me, as a former history major, to be able to divorce absolutely everything I know about history and enjoy the show requires me to change my mindset going in.  Not quite realizing how uninterested in history Da Vinci’s Demons was, I actually paused the show, sat and thought for ten minutes, ,and rearranged my expectations.  It’s not to say I expected a historically based show to actually be entirely accurate, but most of the Showtime/Starz historical shows of the past few years (The Tutors, The Borgias, The white Queen) attempt to be by and large historically accurat-ish at least in the very broad strokes if not so much in the minutia.  That’s what I thought Da Vinci’s Demons would be like, It’s not.

Da Vinci’s Demons is much more similar to the much farther removed from history/ historical fantasy stylings of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Fidelity to historical actuality is extremely limited; some of the characters are based on historical equivalents, but that’s really about it.  It’s not that this is and of itself a bad thing in anyway as much as I had to quell all my historical impulses before I could watch further.  Even the language is ridiculous.  Sure, most historical fiction likely has everybody speaking in ways that are not similar in anyway from how they spoke in the original time period, but at least there’s some attempt to sound like what we think people from that time sounded like.  Da Vinci’s Demons made no such concessions – people throw around words and phrases that sound right out of modern day. Realizing what I was dealing with, I began watching again and did my best to give it back a clean slate.

Tom Riley, who plays Leonardo Da Vinci, owes his performance to, in order, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Downey Jr. as himself.  He portrays the combination of confident swagger, bald-faced arrogance, and brilliant genius that Downey brings to any of these roles.  It’s one step away from the House anti-hero model that Hugh Laurie made so popular during his eight seasons portraying Gregory House, a flawed but brilliant antihero that rubbed many of his fellow characters the wrong way but ultimately had good deep down at heart.  The Downey/Da Vinci model is equally arrogant but generally more well-liked, has fewer blatant flaws, and seems to do pretty well with the ladies.  Leonardo da Vinci, after all, is the original renaissance man; he excels in painting, math, fighting, wit, and so much more.

So, Leonardo, when we meet him, is an up and coming young artist of limited repute, much promise, and big dreams.  He’s brash and thinks three steps ahead of just about everyone else.  He’s great with the women, as mentioned above, but is particularly obsessed with Lorenzo de Mecidi‘s (the leader of Florence for those not remembering their high school history) mistress, Lucrezia.  He hangs out with other creative folk who try to live below the radar, and they seem like the most interesting people in an otherwise hyper-serious city. It certainly seems like they’re having a ton of fun in the scenes where da Vinci and his buddies get wasted together.  His big opportunities come when he pitches the leaders of Florence on a flying bird he’s designed for some big festival, and when he manages to meet with the mysterious Lorenzo and pitches him on a role as military engineer whereby da Vinci can get paid to try out some of his contraptions which could modernize Florence’s military.

In the meantime, we find out Leonardo’s mom, of whom he knows little, was a Turk who was somehow associated with some secretive masonic-like order who relentlessly pursue something called the Book of Leaves, which has all the secrets to future progress. This Turk, who Leonardo saves from a couple of mercenary toughs, tasks Leonardo with digging further into his own past, and looking for the Book of Leaves himself.

Da Vinci is doing all this at a time where Italian city states with sinister leadership are all conspiring against one another with hyper secret meetings and cabals.  Within the first couple of minutes of the show, a leader of Milan is assassinated, and a character that I think is the pope is about to sexually abuse a teen, before the pope’s minions kill the boy after he accidentally finds out too much about their plans. The big twist, at the end of the episode, (FIRST EPISODE SPOILER ALERT) is that Lucretia, the object of Leonardo’s affection, who he sleeps with at the end of the episode, is actually a spy for some other Italian city state, and informs on him to those who would do him harm.  The people she informs him on know the Turk well and the Book of Leaves, and clearly this conspiracy will be a major plot point going forward.

For this show to work, the plot should be riveting and keep me at the edge of my seat.  This conspiracies and secrets are something I should really get behind and want to learn more about, and Riley should be incredibly charismatic as Da Vinci. I think Riley holds up his end of the bargain better; I still think the Da Vinci character is a little much with his always being so dashing and reckless and always having a witty line at every possible juncture but I think Riley does more or less as good job of carrying it as he can.  I feel like Da Vinci’s less bold friends seem to feel when watching da Vinci getting into a scuffle at the bar; I want to say, come on Leonardo, do you have to make a scene at every possible moment?  Can’t we just have a chill Friday night out? The story, I had a hard time getting into.  There’s an ancient order that maybe da Vinci is a part of by birth and that’s cool but I certainly didn’t feel invested at all when I finished the episode. It’s possible that later episodes would wrap me up in it better and pull me in, but setting up an intriguing plotline is something that first episodes of dramas generally do well, so I’m less than impressed that I’m not swept up right away.  Historical city states and their squabbles I also normally find fascinating which made it all the more noteworthy that it didn’t take here; part of buying da Vinci as ahistorical possibly made me less interested in vagaries of Italian politics in the show.

Will I watch it again?  No, probably not.  Once I was able to get over my historical biases it was not bad, but I’m just not intrigued enough by the intricacies of the court in Florence and the secret orders within the Italian states that I want to watch more at this time.  I could imagine getting into it, but unless someone I trust bowls me over with how good it is I doubt it’s going to happen.