Starz! debuts their latest original series tonight, Da Vinci’s Demons, and if your impression of Leonardo da Vinci comes from his self-portrait as an old man, get ready to have your impressions challenged.
Set in 15th century Florence, Da Vinci’s Demons explores the life of a younger Leonardo – or “Leo” as he’s known by his friends. This is a time when Italy’s provinces are sovereign entities, the Holy Roman Church is still trying to consolidate power, powerful families like the Medicis resist that control, and an uneasy peace keeps war at bay. In addition to political tensions, scientific breakthroughs and the rise of Humanism threaten the Church’s hold on the populace. Leo finds himself in the thick of this swirl of politics, religion, learning, and invention; the perfect storm for a genius to upset the status quo.
The series opens with Leo (captivatingly portrayed by Tom Riley) meeting with the mysterious Turk (Alexander Siddig wearing nifty eyeliner) who gives him tantalizing, if maddeningly vague, clues about a secret book of knowledge. The encounter is actually a flash forward, so after that little taste of Sid, we’re plunged four days in the past to witness the events leading up to the meeting.
These events include Leo testing his new design for a hang glider (using his somewhat hapless assistant Nico), sketching beautiful women, studying the flight of birds, building a metal dove for the Medicis’ Easter celebration (Da Vinci’s obsession with flight is well represented here), and finagling his way into a lucrative patronage that lands him squarely in the middle of the Medici family’s affairs. In addition to Leo’s activities, we’re privy to an assassination, political maneuverings, espionage, and a hanging that will have long-ranging repercussions.
As with most first episodes, “The Hanging Man” is packed with exposition as we learn about Leonardo and the world around him. At times the episode drags a bit, but for the most part it keeps up a steady pace laying the foundation for the rest of the season. Tom Riley is a standout as Leonardo. He imbues Leo with intelligence, mischievousness, and impatience with a hint of wistfulness and occasionally a dose of self-destructiveness that make for a complicated man. Laura Haddock is another revelation as Lucrezia Donati, Lorenzo Medici’s mistress and object of Leo’s desire. Stunningly beautiful, at first she appears to be an object to be desired, and possibly fought over, by powerful men, but Lucrezia is so much more than that. We see a glimpse of her own agenda in this first episode, to be explored further in later installments.
Siddig has a small, but crucial, role in the premiere, setting into motion a quest and a conspiracy. He disappears for a time after that first episode, but returns later as Leo’s search for answers continues.
This reimagining of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and times is colorful and compelling. Obviously some creative license has been taken, but the overall impression is anything but dull historical text. The CGI scenery can be a little distracting, but that’s easily forgiven by focusing on the vibrancy of the “real” scenery. Elaborate costumes, milling crowds, and breathtaking views converge into a sumptuous visual feast.
Be warned, however, that Da Vinci’s Demons is a premium cable series and they do push the envelope with regards to what they can show on TV. Nudity, sex, violence, gore, crude language – it’s all here, albeit slightly less gratuitous than, for example, Game of Thrones. Casual nudity abounds, as does casual sex. Da Vinci’s rumored bisexuality is touched on briefly, and some will likely be offended by depictions of sex within the Catholic church. Blood is what usually gets to me, and an autopsy in the second episode nearly caused me to embarrass myself, although I had to appreciate that it was handled in such a matter-of-fact manner as da Vinci’s insatiable appetite for knowledge sent him for the knife.