Another Starz cable TV show with lots of gratuitous nudity, sex and violence, Da Vinci’s Demons is a Game of Thrones wannabe, but it never really gets close. It stars Tom Riley as Leonardo da Vinci, who, in his mid-twenties, is living in Florence, where he is apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio (Allan Corduner) and working closely with Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan), who rules the city. The year is around 1476 and da Vinci is making a name for himself by designing all kinds of elaborate weapons and gadgets centuries ahead of his time. In no time, he will become the most important person in Italy, singlehandedly trying to save Florence against Italian enemies and all of Italy against the Turks (Ottoman Empire). By the third season, da Vinci has become primarily a fighter and a war hero instead of a great artist and thinker (and you know that can’t be a good thing).
To make things interesting, da Vinci shares a lover, Lucrezia Donati ((Laura Haddock) with Lorenzo while Lorenzo’s wife, Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver), is interested in Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman). Helping da Vinci in his quests are his two game-for-anything sidekicks, Zoroaster da Peretola (Gregg Chillin) and Niccolo Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos). Opposing da Vinci are Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) and Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson, a particularly inspired casting choice), though what really concerns da Vinci are the Sons of Mithras, led by Aslan al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig) and their enemies, the Labyrinth. There are many more characters of note, but I won’t name them all here. In general, the acting in Da Vinci’s Demons is quite good.
And Da Vinci’s Demons starts promisingly enough, with a number of interesting plot elements as well as formulaic elements that suggest a lot of intelligence and imagination. And all three seasons feature gorgeous cinematography and a good score. If you can get past the outrageous plots (don’t look for any history here) and da Vinci’s outrageous inventions, which require only hours to create when even today it would probably require weeks; and if you can get past the endless graphic violence (a tall order to be sure; don’t make the mistake I did and try to watch while eating lunch), which is totally out of place in a show that works hard to be funny (a key difference from Game of Thrones, which is a very serious show), then it’s possible to enjoy the first two seasons of Da Vinci’s Demons, even at a ***+ level.
But the third season completely falls of the rails, with absurdity piled upon absurdity (especially surrounding the character of Vlad the Impaler (Paul Rhys), also known as Dracula, who is introduced in the second season and should have been left there) and with plot elements that double back, wander all over the place, and are almost never satisfying. It’s as if a new set of writers was in charge of season three and they didn’t have a clue where they wanted the show to go. Obviously, they learned too late that season three would be the last, so there is evidence of a desperate attempt to provide an ending that ties some of the strands together, but nothing works and lots of stuff is left hanging. The entire third season was, for me, a write-off, an embarrassment that deserved its fate. If it were not for the show’s most fascinating character, Riario, who is plagued by even more internal demons than da Vinci (who certainly has enough of his own) and may, I think, be in love with da Vinci (even when they are enemies), and who features prominently in the third season, I would give that final season no more than **, but I’ll settle for **+, giving Da Vinci’s Demons an average of ***.
It’s all an incredible waste of potential (interesting characters played by good actors) and I would only recommend it to those who are willing to see the show take a dive in the final season.