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What becomes clear from the start of David S. Goyer's new historical fantasy series Da Vinci's Demons is that this show won't work if fans aren't completely drawn in by Tom Riley's performance as the legendary artist, inventor, painter and all around Renaissance Man. Fortunately for Da Vinci's Demons, and for Starz, the series succeeds in selling us on the character, presenting him as a man who manages to measure up to the hype of his legend, while also coming across as human, relatable, flawed and likable all at once. Da Vinci's Demons plays almost like a procedural at times, introducing new mysteries, many of which are tied to the overall plot, and giving the titular character riddles to solve, challenges to overcome, and plenty of opposing characters to outsmart. In the end, what Goyer has delivered is something exciting, mysterious, suspenseful and clever.
Set in fifteenth century Florence, the series premiere introduces us to Leonardo Da Vinci, a 25-year-old man whose genius can't be contained to one medium. When he isn't painting or sculpting, he's trying to create a workable flying machine or working on other inventions, some more dangerous and innovative than others. The series introduces a number of mysteries, among which are Da Vinci's lost memories, which relate largely to his mother, who died a mysterious death when he was younger. Information given to him from a Turk (Alexander Siddig) in the first episode leads him to pursue answers, and also attempt to unravel the mysteries related to the mythical "Book of Leaves." Things are further complicated when he forms a romantic relationship with Lucrezia Donato (Laura Haddock), a woman who's married to a noble class man but earns more status for being the mistress to Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan).
Opposing Medici is Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), the nephew of the Pope, who believes Florence to be a prime example of what's wrong with the direction of things in Europe, and seeks to take down Medici, using any means necessary.
Fitting to the time and location, religion and politics are intermixed, creating interesting and exciting conflict. However, the focus of the show is on Da Vinci and his mysteries, which is why it's so crucial that Riley be the primary draw for this series. And he really is. He's an attractive man, but not distractingly so. It's his cleverness that makes Da Vinci such a mesmerizing character, and Riley sells that well. The wheels in Da Vinci's head are always turning, allowing us to sit back and wonder what he might say or do next. The execution of certain scenes remind me of shows like Sherlock, Elementary or House, when you're watching the lead build up to a point he's about to make but you aren't sure what it is until he brings it home and blows everyone's minds because he's brilliant. It's a satisfying experience and one that works really well in justifying Da Vinci's reputation. Not only is he often the smartest man in the room, he also knows how to apply his intelligence to his situations, some of which are literally life or death.
Another aspect of the series that works really well is the establishment of Da Vinci's group. He isn't alone in his endeavors. Early on in the series, we see him testing one of his flying machines with Nico Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos), his young and devoted apprentice, while the young and beautiful part-time portrait model Vanessa (Hera Hilmar) watches on. Zoroaster (Greg Chillin) serves as Da Vinci's connection to the Florentine underworld. His questionable morals as a thief and a hustler, have him often looking for a way to cash in on any given situation. But he's also the voice of reason when Da Vinci's plans get out of hand. Da Vinci is a man who sees things as they should be, not as they are and that can be a bit maddening at times. Sometimes he needs to be reeled in, and that's where his friends come in.
The group's support adds a bit more balance to Da Vinci's character. He can't be all things at once without becoming superhuman. The character comes close to that line, without fully crossing it. In addition to a great dynamic, the pacing in each episode works nicely, drawing us into the central mystery involving the Book of Leaves while also introducing new challenges and conflicts with each installment. That allows for some resolution and a satisfying conclusion with each episode, while also leaving just enough unanswered questions to make us want more. The visual effects, which are sometimes used to bring Da Vinci's creations to life, and other times used to illustrate his thought process, are pretty solid and add a unique visual style to the show. And the Florentine backdrop is stunning and well used.
Starz has the right idea in introducing Da Vinci's Demons to viewers following the conclusion of Spartacus, as fans who loved this historical fantasy drama are going to be in the market for another show that fits that fairly vast genre, come this Friday night when the gladiator series wraps up. With that said, the genre, the fact that both shows are set in Italy (in different time periods) and are airing on Starz are about the only major connections they have. I also expect this series will take some liberties with its historical content for the sake of the story, much in the way Spartacus has. But Da Vinci's Demons isn't Spartacus. It's a different story about a different character, set in a different time with a very different tone. But based on the first few episodes, the show does have the potential to be as engaging, exciting and unpredictable as Spartacus. Da Vinci's Demons imagines its title character as he might have been during his younger years, when he's just at the cusp of greatness and desperate to realize all of the things that his mind has created. There are so many places they can take this adventure, and based on the start of it, Da Vinci's Demons is aiming for the skies.
Da Vinci's Demons premieres April 12 at 10:00 p.m. ET on Starz.