Created by David S. Goyer, the writer behind Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ could have very well been entitled ‘Da Vinci Begins’. The show features a young version of the famed painter/inventor/mathematician (to name just a few talents) and tries to weave a mythological story behind the man we know from history. The pilot episode, entitled ‘The Hanged Man’, has just debuted on Starz, with seven more episodes scheduled to air in the first season.
The story opens with a familiar face. Hugh Bonneville from ‘Downton Abbey‘ plays the Duke of Milan, who is assassinated just minutes into this first episode. We are then introduced to Leonardo (Tom Riley), sketching a topless portrait of one of his young female friends. (Keep in mind, this runs on Starz, so look for gratuitous nudity and bloodshed at least once every 15 minutes.) We’re also introduced to Leo’s (yes, friends actually call him “Leo” in this series) younger sidekick Nico (Eros Vlahos), whom Da Vinci uses as a guinea pig to test out his new flying contraption.
Leo and his friends are residents of Florence, which is run by the Medici family – primarily two brothers. One, Guilino (Tom Bateman), sees Leo as little more than a town trickster and con-man, while the other brother, Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan), is more receptive to Da Vinci. Lorenzo is also the leader of the Medici family, and currently has a mistress, Lucrezia (Laura Haddock), whom Leo has developed an unhealthy crush on.
While Da Vinci spends most of the first episode trying to prove his worth to the Medicis and gain the affection of Lucrezia, the real threat comes from the Church, run by Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner), who learns that Da Vinci has had contact with a mystery man known as “The Turk” (Alexander Siddig from ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’). The Turk proves to be somewhat of a mentor for Leo, helping him deal with some forgotten childhood trauma (which involves a cave, no less – again, shades of ‘Batman Begins‘ by Goyer here), and telling him about a “Book of Leaves,” which sounds like it’s going to be this series’ (or at least this first season’s) MacGuffin.
There’s a lot going on in the pilot, and it’s too early to tell if the series is really well thought out or just convoluted. I will say that upon first viewing, I didn’t immediately get a good sense of all the characters, their motivations, or how they will fit into the overall story. The strongest aspect to the series is fortunately the lead character of Da Vinci. Riley’s portrayal of the character immediately brings to mind (well, at least my mind) Robert Downey Jr’.s version of Sherlock Holmes, in the sense that Da Vinci is always the smartest guy in the room, always inquisitive, and always seeing things that those around him do not.
The biggest weakness so far is a matter of production values. I have no idea how much money each episode of ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ costs, but many of the sets look like, well, sets, and the vast majority of the CGI looks like it belongs in an animated film rather than a live-action series. Given Starz’s habit of cancelling expensive series after just one season (remember ‘Camelot‘?), I’ll forgive the network if it’s simply looking to cut down costs this time around. If, however, ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ is just as expensive, the producers really need to consider a new F/X house to work on the series.
Did any of our readers catch this episode? What did you think of it?