The Leonardo da Vinci of Da Vinci’s Demons is dynamic, eccentric, and haughtily egotistical, three characteristics that can also be appointed to the modern fictional portrayals of Sherlock Holmes. David S. Goyer’s new historical fantasy series plays out much like a combination of Guy Ritchie’s Holmes films, and, fittingly, given Goyer’s involvement in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, a quasi-superhero origin story.
Tom Riley plays Da Vinci as a silver-tongued, open-minded dreamer chained down in an uncivilized world, bonds which he hopes to break by slowly slipping his way into the good graces of the Italian government. This updated, theatrically apocryphal Da Vinci (thankfully, Goyer isn’t concerned with upholding the loose truths of his show’s factual basis) is still obsessed with unlocking the mysteries of flight and sketching each and every object that catches his attention, but he’s also an accomplished swordsman with a knack for pointing his blade at the wrong people. Da Vinci’s vices are made known early on, as we see him depicted as a wayward young visionary routinely smoking opium and plagued by recurring nightmares of his clouded past. Da Vinci claims he can draw anything he’s seen, even in passing, yet the one sight he can’t recall is his own mother’s face. (Da Vinci’s desire to decrypt his distorted ancestry will be a point of importance as this unabashedly far-fetched narrative evolves.)
The lumbering pilot regrettably spends most of its running time focused on Da Vinci’s quest to secure funds from the upper class. After a shocking opening scene where a debaucherous priest’s gullet is stabbed as the result of a Vatican-sanctioned assassination, the episode regrettably cuts away from that very Spartacus-esque action, stumbling through a banal checklist of Da Vinci stereotypes: his penchant for etching portraits of attractive women; his infatuation with building flying contraptions; and his cluttered working style, including a workshop that’s wall-to-wall with blueprints. It all feels very breezy and commonplace, until a nude Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) appears in a giant pool with a dagger pressed to the throat of an equally naked quivering boy, one who the pontiff most likely just had his way with. Soon the villainous Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson) enters with news of labored spycraft and highly sought-after chimerical texts, all before slicing the neck of the boy without so much as a second thought.
The series takes its sweet time before uniting the plotlines of Da Vinci and the corrupted Vatican, and does so by introducing a level of much-needed mythical allure. Da Vinci crosses paths with a shadowy Turk named Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig), an undeniably Ra’s al Ghul-like mentor who informs Da Vinci of his “Chosen One” status, and that he must seek out the legendary Book of Leaves, a tome said to contain answers to all the questions of the universe. It turns out Riario, the Professor Moriarty to Da Vinci’s Holmes, is after the priceless omnibus as well, and thus begins a sporadically entertaining battle of wits and rapiers between two cunning men who will stop at nothing to find what they seek.
Goyer’s fanciful dialogue walks a steady line between melodramatic and campy, and the CGI-spangled city of Florence is luminous and sprawling, but much of Da Vinci’s Demons’s crowded supporting cast is lost in the flashiness of Da Vinci’s preposterous exploits. Ancillary characters like Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), who later commissions Da Vinci to create cutting-edge machines of war, and Lorenzo’s mistress, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), with whom the mostly straight-washed Da Vinci (we see his lustful gaze drift toward a male only briefly) strikes up an ill-advised affair, are essentially the sole standouts among an otherwise mundane collection of secondaries. Da Vinci’s sidekick, a pubescent Niccolo Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos), and the street-savvy swindler Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) seem to exist solely to add a sort of bumbling comedic flavoring to break up the darker, gorier sequences. That’s a shame, because when Da Vinci’s Demons is barreling at top speed, unapologetically defiling history with its macabre absurdity, as in the surprisingly exciting second episode, “The Serpent,” which ditches the disconnected structure of the pilot for a full-on detective yarn with an unexpected last-minute twist (think Sherlock Holmes set in the Renaissance), the show’s faults, however obvious they may be, gradually fall by the wayside.