'Da Vinci's Demons' Is Ridiculous, Ludicrous, Utterly Unbelievable, and a Hell of a Good Time

Da Vinci's Demons scores major points 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.

Da Vinci's Demons

Distributor: Anchor Bay
Cast: Tom Riley, Laura Haddock, Blake Ritson, Elliot Cowan, Lara Pulver, Gregg Chillin, Hera Hilmar, Eros Vlahos
Network: Starz
US Release date: 2013-09-03

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.