Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Da Vinci’s Demons: Leonardo Decodes an Ancient Mystery

Could Leonardo Da Vinci have been a member of a Persian mystery cult?  The Sons of Mithras certainly seem to know him, even if he does not recognize them.  The Vatican is also keenly aware of the Maestro, but he wants no part of the Church.  However, it is not Da Vinci’s artistry that interests the Pope’s men.  They believe he will lead them to the Book of Leaves, a mysterious volume of Faustian knowledge that serves as the MacGuffin of Da Vinci’s Demons (promo here), a new speculative historical series debuting this Friday on Starz.

Created and co-written by executive producer David S. Goyer (co-writer of the Dark Knight trilogy), Da Vinci’s Demons could be called a Da Vinci Code for Da Vinci.  Throughout the series, he will be solving puzzles that are part of a larger ancient mystery.  He must also navigate contemporary intrigues (circa 1476).  Although hardly obsequious to the Medici family, Da Vinci is a proud Florentine, because the Republic is such an exemplar of Renaissance ideals.  Of course, the Pope hates the city-state for exactly the same reason. 

Seeing opportunity in crisis, Da Vinci offers his services to the Magnifico as a war engineer.  Naturally, he makes all sorts of enemies in the process. He also accepts a commission to paint the portrait of Lorenzo’s mistress, Lucrezia Donati.  She was already cheating on her husband with de Medici, whom she also starts to cheat on with Da Vinci.  Indeed, there will be a fair amount of sneaking in and out of bedchambers and outright scandal in Demons.

There are light fantastical elements in Demons, but it is closer in tone to shows like Rome and Spartacus, with a protagonist who could be the spiritual cousin of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.  We even see the world from a similar stop-time perspective through his eyes.  Tom Riley takes a bit of getting used to as Da Vinci, but he grows on viewers (at least over the course of the first four episodes).  He nicely captures that Sherlockian charismatic arrogance, which is quite entertaining when done right.

Demons also benefits from two attractive yet steely women characters to counterbalance its murderous cardinals and randy artists.  Laura Haddock’s Donati brings a sultry noir vibe to the series, while Lara Pulver (Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock) is an intriguing master of realpolitik as Clarice Orsini, Mrs. de Medici. Despite his resemblance to Adrien Brody, Blake Ritson also makes a first class heavy as the Pope’s enforcer, Count Girolamo Riario.

Frankly, Da Vinci’s Demons seems to have about as low an opinion of the Church as Reelz’s World Without End, but at least the nefarious clerics enjoy their villainy.  In contrast, the Ken Follett’s evil Brother Godwyn always looks slightly nauseous.  Indeed, a little moustache-twisting and teeth-gnashing is always enjoyable.  Combined with a Dan Brown-esque mystical backstory and some almost steampunky set pieces, Da Vinci’s Demons brings a lot to the table.  It is an entertaining series that picks up steam, becoming more addictive as it progresses.  Recommended for fans of Rome and The Da Vinci Code, Da Vinci’s Demons premieres this Friday (4/12) on Starz.