I almost gave up after the first episode of the first season. Almost.

The characters were likeable enough, the sets vast and the acting, top notch, but there was just something missing.  As far as television shows go, it felt grand and presented a sense of reality somewhere between Spartacus and The Borgias. But Da Vinci’s Demons was just missing that it factor, something it never seemed to find.

It contains a season long through-line as Rome attempts to take control of Medici-run Florence. The Medici brothers, Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan) and Giuliano (Tom Bateman) plot and play politics against the Roman enforcer Count Riario (Blake Ritson) to maintain and strengthen their control of Florence.

The only accurate bit of history this show appears to contain is that it takes place during the Renaissance, the time period in which Da Vinci actually lived.  Beyond that, it is strictly fiction, often fantasy. And, it’s good that the producers got the Renaissance-thing right, because this version of Da Vinci is a Renaissance man and beyond.  Da Vinci is played sporadically likeable by Tom Riley. Riley presents an amiable and impassioned portrayal of the man sometimes, and at others, he turns Da Vinci into an unlikeable denizen.  Da Vinci often appears to be less of a genius and more of a savant-like schizophrenic! He’s an artist, a scientist, an inventor of weapons, a clairvoyant, a philosopher, a lover, a fighter, a man on the brink of genius, a man on the brink of destruction, and the beat goes on … and on … and on. Much like the series.

Occasionally Da Vinci’s Demons finds a very nice pace, especially when given the opportunity to explore the creative side of Da Vinci (although often extremely far-fetched).  Other times it crosses the edge of reality into a fantastical world that is uncomfortably out of sync with the reality we have been presented with. Da Vinci is on a mysterious quest for the mystical Book of Leaves which will open the Vault to Heaven (can anything possibly live up to this expectation?). This quest is merely a distraction to (at least what should be) the greater story – the power struggle between Rome and the Medici’s for Florence.  The latter is a storyline that Da Vinci is only partially and very lackingly involved in developing. Da Vinci, the character, much like the series, bounces around constantly and not always for the better. From an episode revolving around Vlad the Impaler to the invention of the camera and a “batman light” sky projector, the series searches, but never finds its own vault to the viewer.

The series presents many other characters and as much as the writers try, we are just never allowed to connect with or care about most of them. The most likeable character on the show is Giuliano Medici. Bateman plays him fun and free with an always present understanding of the seriousness of what’s to come. Giuliano presents the character with a dynamic story arch and development, while ultimately concluding with the most disappointing of outcomes in the series finale.

It leaves one of the most unresolved cliffhangers I can remember in recent times. For an established show with characters the viewer truly cares about and has built an attachment to, this can work just fine.  But the viewer’s compassion for Da Vinci and the other characters is minimal at best. As much as the show tries to build interest, it makes me equally not care.

Da Vinci’s Demons wants to have a serious audience, stealing from the Borgias, but yet it seems to also have an expectation to fill the Spartacus void. It fulfills neither and muddles somewhere in the middle for most of the season. I never found myself excited about the next episode, but rather forgetting entirely about the show until I would stumble across it when there was nothing else to watch.

The season finale of Da Vinci’s Demons was designed to leave a viewer saying, “Oh, my God. What happens next?” But really, I found myself more-or-less with a total lack of concern for the outcome … or the next season.

Overall, this first season was interesting but not compelling. Da Vinci’s Demons has been renewed for season 2, so we will see if that’s enough.

Season Grade: B-


Review by Gordon Shelly, special to Influx Magazine