An enlightened, scientific man in barbaric, medieval times, the Leonardo Da Vinci of David S. Goyer’s “Da Vinci’s Demons” recalls an earlier variation on Sherlock Holmes — William of Baskerville, the sleuthing friar played by Sean Connery in “The Name of the Rose.” Granted, Tom Riley’s anachronistic Da Vinci feels as much like a Silicon Valley eccentric as a 15th-century artist/inventor, but the show is still a good deal of fun, while indulging in all the lusty debauchery one has come to expect from period cable dramas. For Starz, it’s a welcome reinforcement as longtime staple “Spartacus” breathes its last.
(From the pages of the April 2 issue of Variety.)
Goyer (whose credits include “The Dark Knight” and “Blade” movies, as well as the genre TV series “Flash Forward” and “Threshold”) presents Da Vinci as a tortured genius, one who smokes opium because, “I need to dull my thoughts,” but a man who’s also a gifted swordsman — in every sense of the term.
The writer-director has also concocted an elaborate latticework around his leading man, with Da Vinci seeking out the patronage of Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), while simultaneously setting his eye on Medici’s mistress (Laura Haddock) and being drawn into a chase to locate something called “The Book of Leaves,” a mysterious conduit to great knowledge and power. Da Vinci seeks this MacGuffin along with Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), operating on behalf of the Holy Roman Church and his lascivious uncle, Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner).
Suffice to say Da Vinci, who like Holmes in the recent Guy Ritchie movies, sees things in a visually detailed manner others don’t, must use all his formidable intellect to survive, and to finance his inventions, ranging from early flying machines to weapons of war.
Riley takes a bit of getting used to as Da Vinci, but once one adjusts to the program’s tone, it’s an entertaining serialized plot with plenty of twists, nudity and violence, but not the same grim streak or stuffiness of something like “The Borgias.” (The show opens, incidentally, with a cameo by “Downton Abbey’s” Hugh Bonneville, offering a side of Lord Grantham that might require a moment to expunge.)
Production-wise, the eight-episode series (which Fox International Channels will launch globally in a relatively narrow window) exhibits some obvious limitations, with uneven CGI quality in replicating the pristine vistas of Da Vinci’s Florence.
Then again, audiences mostly have been unperturbed by the sometimes-fuzzy edges of the virtual world in, say, ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” and despite its historical moorings, this feels like no less a fantasy.
The show also benefits from a solid cast, perhaps especially Ritson (“Upstairs Downstairs”), who seems very much like a worthy Prof. Moriarty to Riley’s Holmes, even if the image of a brutally ruthless religious warrior feels a trifle overdone.
After a few dramatic misfires (“Magic City,” comes immediately to mind), “Da Vinci’s Demons” also places Starz back on comfortably escapist turf, with a show that will premiere on “Spartacus’” back, and appears designed to be sprung from its rib. While that won’t necessarily exorcise all the channel’s demons, it should be enough, like some of Da Vinci’s most forward-thinking designs, to stay airborne.
Da Vinci’s Demons
Starz series; Fri. April 12, 10 p.m.
Credits: Filmed in Wales by Phantom Four Films and Adjacent Prods. Executive producers, David S. Goyer, Julie Gardner, Jane Tranter; co-executive producer, Courtney B. Conte; producer, Lee Morris; writer-director, Goyer; camera, Fabian Wagner; production designer, Edward Thomas; editor, Tim Murrell; visual effects producers, Simon Frame, Kevin Blank; casting, Priscilla John. running time: 60 MIN.
Cast: Tom Riley, Laura Haddock, Blake Ritson, Elliot Cowan, Lara Pulver, Gregg Chillin, Hera Hilmar, Eros Vlahos, James Faulkner, David Schofield, Alexander Siddig, Tom Bateman, Allan Corduner.