Beyond the sword-and-sandals bloodlust of “Spartacus,” finding a premium niche has been challenging for Starz, which has seen some ostentatious misfires. In “Da Vinci’s Demons,” however, the service has found its niche, conjuring a mix of debauchery, fun and sheer wackiness. The show returns for a second season that ups the ante on swashbuckling and arcane mythology, while continuing to cleverly use the famed artist/inventor’s innovations as a blueprint; this year, that includes a seafaring riff that contains some of the buoyant qualities the channel’s “Black Sails” lacks. David Goyer’s series isn’t for everyone, but in terms of a creative spark Starz could do (and indeed, has done) considerably worse.
It doesn’t hurt that the season opens in the midst of a full-scale war, with Florence under siege, wealthy patron Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) in grave peril and his resident genius, Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley), forced to try to save him. Their absence on the home front leaves Lorenzo’s steely wife (Lara Pulver) in charge of defending the city as Vatican forces answering to Pope Sixtus (James Faulkner) close in.
Not content to settle for all that, the premiere opens with an elaborate sequence set in the New World, before flashing back six months earlier, just to give the story additional momentum. As for plots, they include Leonardo’s quest for something called the Book of Leaves (Hitchcock fans would refer to this as a MacGuffin) — with the Pope’s ruthless henchman Count Riario (Blake Ritson) in hot pursuit — and a conspiracy within the Vatican, which has set its sights on cleansing Florence, whose enlightenment is viewed as something akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.
In short, myriad things are going on all at once, some of them barely making sense, but all played with gusto by the talented (mostly British) cast. Goyer also has great fun, again, with Da Vinci’s prescient 15th-century drawings, bringing them to life in one instance by fabricating an early version of a submarine so he can sneakily attack a ship.
As played by Riley, Da Vinci is another way to present a Sherlock Holmes-like character (his trances recall the “Sherlock”-vision that’s become a staple), yet with an eclectic set of lusts and excesses well suited to the pay-cable universe. Indeed, where a lot of series would seem to be going off the rails with some of the rabbits Da Vinci pulls out of his hat, in this setting — stripped of any pretensions — the wilder, the better.
Granted, “Da Vinci’s Demons” won’t win the kind of accolades that Starz’s competitors have used to brand themselves, but it should keep plenty of subscribers happy. And if that’s not genius, per se, in this 21st-century context, it’s nevertheless a winning formula.