Da Vinci’s Demons S1 E1-3 (Fox)

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I’ve been meaning to post something about Fox channel’s new historical action fantasy show Da Vinci’s Demons for a couple of weeks now; the problem is, I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it, or even how exactly to describe and categorise it.

It’s a frustrating show, sometimes flirting with greatness and at other times just a bit of a mess. Some weeks I enjoy its irreverent modernist fiction (based on the early life of the Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci) and at other times it simply grates on me. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; my response to the show is as up and down and erratic as the show itself seems to be in tone.

It’s best when it’s having some all-out fun with its concept, such as when it presents the young ‘Leo’ da Vinci as a wild eccentric with a swaggering ego and an eye for the women (and the men at times, it’s hinted) together with a great line in high-handed barbs and witticisms with which to put down the likes of the dimwitted Giulino Medici. The little moments when the show does innovative graphical visualisations of the inspirations connecting to da Vinci’s greatest scientific breakthroughs are also particular highlights.

But chiefly this is a show desperate to push the boundaries of television taste: the language is ripe and it rarely misses a chance to shock, throwing in lashings of graphic sex scenes, nudity, violence and gore at every chance it can get, even if that means dipping into drug-induced hallucinatory sequences so that it can go especially over the top. We’ve had Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham no less!) parading around in the nude; a Pope frolicking in a Vatican pool with an underage boy whose throat is then slit for overhearing too much; a scene depicting da Vinci performing a (very modern-style) autopsy on his own cadaver, while other blood-soaked corpses nearby get up and walk off zombie-like. Add to that a bevy of nuns gone mad baring their breasts, one hanging herself from the rooftops and another stabbing herself through the eye with a sword and you get some basic sense of what’s going on, altogether obfuscating the series’ overarching plot in the process to the point of absurdity.

It’s not subtle, and its reinvention of da Vinci as a period Indiana Jones/Sherlock Holmes/Tony Stark adventurer actually isn’t all that revolutionary either. Anyone with any bona fide knowledge of the real da Vinca had best steer clear of this if they want to control their blood pressure. The best way I can characterise the series is that it is to Merlin as Torchwood was to Doctor Who: trying ever so hard to be a adult version of a popular family-friendly show by going all potty-mouthed and showing some rumpy-pumpy and boobies. In place of Russell T Davies, in this case the show is created and written by David S. Goyer (co-writer of The Dark Knight films and also the writer of the Blade franchise); but Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter are among the executive producers, the whole thing is shot in Doctor Who’s backyard in Wales, and the show is a co-production between BBC Worldwide and the Starz! Network stemming from their earlier original collaboration on the ill-fated Torchwood: Miracle Day mini-series.

And yet despite how far over the top it is at times, Da Vinci’s Demons also has genuine appeal – and by no means merely as some trashy guilty pleasure. It’s handsomely mounted in terms of production values (some dodgy CGI to convert the environs of soggy Cardiff into sunny Florence aside); it has good action sequences and a real sense of energy and pace to it. Underneath the often absurd supernatural trappings and silly frothiness, it even has a half-way decent compelling story arc of dark plots and intrigue bubbling away underneath if you can hack your way past the too-busy trappings.

For me, the best thing about it is the cast. If I’m continuing watching it week after week then it’s for the actors first and foremost, starting with Tom Riley as Leo himself. He’s an actor I praised when he was playing James Nesbitt’s sidekick in ITV medical drama Monroe and I’m delighted to see him get his big shot at international stardom here – and moreover that he seizes it with both hands and makes da Vinci such an appealingly charming, high-energy rogue and scoundrel.

Riley is well supported by both regular and recurring guest cast. Laura Haddock makes Lucrezia Donati a suitably alluring Mata Hari figure; Lara Pulver is once again as scene-stealingly classy as Clarice Orsini as she was as Irene Adler in Sherlock; Elliot Cowan and Tom Bateman deliver a great line in sibling bickering as Lorenzo and Giulino Medici; Nick Dunning (The Tudors) is back in period costume as the Pope’s scarily zealous right hand man; and James Faulkner makes for a delightfully sleazy and decadent Pope Sixtus IV. We’ve also had an important cameo from Star Trek: Deep Space 9′s Alexander Siddig as ‘the Turk’ and David Schofield popping up as Leonardo’s malevolent father.

davinciMost of all, every action hero needs a chief nemesis – and here the series throws up the character of Girolamo Riario, played by Blake Ritson. He’s an actor I hadn’t seen until recently when he popped up as Edward III in the Ridley and Tony Scott adaptation of Ken Follett’s medieval potboiler World Without End but he’s also played the Duke of Kent in the BBC’s ill-fated revival of Upstairs Downstairs. There’s something about his off-kilter chilly playing that makes this preternaturally calm bad guy a role with which he’s able to steal large chunks of screen time. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a big future ahead of him as a result.

So all in all, despite my frustrations with the show as a whole at a time, it’s ended up assembling a cast of characters that I’m enjoying hanging out with and getting to know. It’s also a show that takes a few risks and doesn’t go for the same old tepid, regurgitated formulas. It turns out this is all quite enough to keep me tuning in every week – for the time being at least – and I find I’m actually rather glad that it’s already been green-lit for a second series in the US.

Da Vinci’s Demons currently airs in the UK on Friday at 10pm on the Fox channel. The DVD and Blu-ray release is scheduled for October 28, 2013.

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