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Da Vinci's Demons: The Complete First Season

(Starz; US DVD: 3 Sep 2013)

Awesomeness can be measured in different ways. There’s the awesomeness of Game of Thrones, which is measured in scope and grandiosity, not to mention killer performances. There’s the awesomeness of Breaking Bad, which is all about intensity, the plot’s relentless turning of the screw. There’s the awesomeness of Spartacus, which is breathtaking in its unapologetically over-the-top ludicrousness.


And then there’s Da Vinci’s Demons another show from Starz that is nowhere near as good as any of these, yet still manages to score major point for its gleeful, headlong rush of I-don’t-give-a-shit-ness. Call it the joy of ridiculousness. Call it the audacity of awesomeness.


First of all: forget Da Vinci as any kind of historical reality. The Leonardo we have in this series is a leather-jacketed bad boy who makes his own rules, a smirking genius who quips wise in the face of heavyweight baddies, meanwhile bedding hot babes and kicking butt in swordfights when not inventing things like rocket-powered fireworks-exploding flying mechanical doves for Easter services in Florence.


This is circa, what, 1475? Yeah whatever. It’s fiction, maaan. If you’re going to get hung up on little details of verisimilitude, well, that’s why you’ve got PBS and NOVA. Thank you for your contribution.


For those of us who don’t care, or at least don’t care as much, Starz piles on the absurdity with breathtaking zest. Using the historical Da Vinci’s wealth of unrealized sketches as a starting point, the series portrays the man as a genius inventor/artist (which he was) turned stealth secret agent/ninja/black ops commando (which he was not) operating on behalf of the Florentine Medici family against the machinations of the evil Pope in Rome.


This liaison may have had some basis in historical accuracy, but the show makes merry with the truth, as Leonardo invents everything from multi-barrelled rotating cannons to a camera obscura that flashes pornographic images into the night sky over Florence to an underwater breathing apparatus that allows him to break into the Vatican’s secret archive. No, really—it’s all based on history!


Worth mentioning is the cut-and-dried characterization on display. Although a few characters progress a bit as the season moves along, becoming a trifle more or less sympathetic as events play out, this is the exception rather than the rule. Generally, the good guys remain resolutely good, while the villains drip villainy from every pore. The Pope himself is shown to be a kind of uber-Voldemort, a plotting, murderous cretin somewhat less sympathetic than Hitler.


The overarching narrative arc is the rivalry between Florence and Rome, two nation-stares vying for supremacy throughout Europe; Rome claims to have God on its side, while Florence must make do with money, sex and a certain degree of freedom. It’s a toss-up who will come out on top, but there’s no question whose side we’re supposed to be on.


Besides this, there’s plenty of guff about Leo’s search for his mother—she vanished when he was little and he doesn’t remember her! And he remembers everything!—and a magical-mystical plotline involving a mysterious occult book coveted by both the Pope and a secret society of apparently immortal mystics who babble on about time being circular and so forth. There are magical keys and disturbing visions and, oh yeah, vampires.


Right, I almost forgot about them. Vampires. Just when you think things couldn’t get any more ridiculous… I have a feeling the vampire episode is sort of a litmus test for viewers, the point at which people will either kick over their TVs in disgust or else giggle and shrug and say, “Yeah, why the fuck not?”


Despite such distractions, any viewer expecting resolution to any of the overarching plot questions is doomed to disappointment. Long-form TV serials have perfected the art of the season-ending cliffhanger, but Da Vinci’s Demons takes this to a new level. None of the many plot threads introduced throughout the brief season’s eight episodes achieve any resolution at all; this isn’t reason enough to avoid the series, which is mightily engaging on episode-by-episode basis, but is disappointing nonetheless. Some sort of resolution to at least a couple of the threads would give the viewer an impression that the show’s producers had a sense of where this was all going. As it is, the season ends as abruptly as the final episode does: in mid-action.


Visually, the show looks great, with slick special effects and a warm, color-rich palette that effectively conjures up Renaissance Italy. Lots of torchlight, sumptuous fabrics, and plenty of pretty people in various states of undress ensure that the eye is always engaged. A barrage of hyperactive quick-cutting used, I suppose, to suggest the lightning-quick associations made in Leonardo’s mind; it’s cheesy as hell but it gets the point across.


Performances are committed, although Tom Riley in the lead role is a bit too pretty for my taste. He also has an annoying mannerism of twitching his fingers while lost in thought, as if, again, trying to show visually the process of a brilliant man thinking really hard. This is sort of too dumb for words, but it’s far from the dumbest thing on offer here. Did I mention the vampires?


At just eight episodes, it’s tough to say that the series is satisfying; it honestly feels like a couple of episodes are missing (maybe the ones that would have made the season finale more conclusive). Perhaps to make up for this, the DVD set has included numerous extras, none of which are interesting. There are the usual self-congratulatory commentary tracks and a handful of deleted scenes, along with various three-minute featurettes on elements of production—the sets, the costumes, etc.


Astonishingly, nobody involved seems to understand that the series is barking mad. Then again, maybe that’s why it’s barking mad.


Anyway, you’re not going to watch this set because of the extras. You’re going to watch it, or not, because it’s awesome, or not. Put me in the “awesome” camp.


There will be a season two, and word is that it will be filled out to ten episodes, and then with even more luck there will be further seasons after that. Let’s hope that even more of the historical Da Vinci’s unrealized machines will be constructed, aiding him in his duties as Florentine secret-agent-ninja-stealth-warrior-slash-vampire-hunter-slash-all-purpose-badass, proving once and for all that not only was Leonardo the original Renaissance man, he was also the originator of awesome.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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