My latest media obsession is Da Vinci’s Demons. And I bet many of you would like it as well. It’s a historical fantasia about the Italian Renaissance in general, and late 1480s Florence in particular. Our hero is a young Leonardo da Vinci, who is totally channeling the Robert Downey Junior version of Sherlock Holmes, while simultaneously playing Assassin’s Creed II. If the historical da Vinci ever made a speculative sketch of a gadget in his notebooks, you can be sure that Leo will eventually get around to building and using a working model of it on the show.
I say “fantasia” rather than “fantasy”, because the fantastic elements are fairly restrained. More than once, while reading wikipedia about one of the historical characters, I discovered that something I thought quite implausible was actually historically true. Or at least was riffing on something true. They do seem to have some form of psychic time travel going on, but even that is pretty restrained. Not that they feel married to historical accuracy. While most of the show’s events are at least strongly inspired by history, they are quite willing to fudge timing for dramatic effect. In season 1, this fudging can be up to a couple of years, and in season 2, they go up to a couple decades in at least one instance. But we are following the general outline of late 1480s world history.
And it is *world* history. While focused on Florence, various cast members travel surprisingly large distances due to plot exigencies. Most of the travel time is elided, but it does help explain why each relatively short season takes about a year of calendar time.
Being a cable show, it has quite a lot of sex and violence. Neither aspect seems particularly gratuitous, at least most of the time. I am happy to see that the treatment of characters as sexual beings is close to gender-equal. Indeed, there is one hilarious scene where what starts as a metaphorical dick-wagging display changes into a 100% literal one :-)
In addition to all the fun genre elements, the show has a serious political point of view. The first season’s tagline was “Free the Future”. The show explicitly takes the position that Leonardo (and Florence under the Medicis) are literally inventing the modern world that we now live in. And that this small spark of enlightened secular humanism is under constant threat from a variety of outside autocratic forces.
After watching the first few episodes, I liked the show, but was worried that it would jump the shark at any moment. That worry remains, as they seem determined to walk the edge of what they can get away with in terms of narrative plausibility. Yet (at least for me) they haven’t fallen off that edge yet. The middle of season 2 got a bit draggy, but the pace completely picked up again by the end of the season. And in the last episode, they dropped a bomb that they’d been keeping in their pocket for a long time, which totally recontextualized a major part of the show. Y’all should go and watch the show, so I can talk about it without it being a spoiler :-)