You may have thought (as I did) that Leonardo da Vinci was old, left-handed and gay. But Starz’s plucky and occasionally fun new drama series, “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which premieres Friday, begs to differ.
“I’m ambidextrous,” announces a taut, young and sexy Leonardo (Tom Riley), who also seems to have invented the stubble trimmer and Supercuts along the way to designing the paraglider and the helicopter. And judging from the way high-class Medici mistress Lucrezia Donadi (Laura Haddock) vigorously (and toplessly) passes the time with Leonardo — time he’s supposed to spend painting her portrait — well, so much for his place in gay history.
At first look, “Da Vinci’s Demons” predictably resembles cable’s many period dramas, most of which seem to exist to provide employment opportunities for British actors. The show takes liberties wherever it likes while remaining within the general frame of history. There is just enough here to enjoy, stopping well short of enthralling.
One byproduct of the “golden age of television” is that anything cheap can be easily made to look better than it is. What happens is that a lot of one-hour dramas, “Da Vinci’s Demons” included, possess the basic, perfected blandness of advertising, filled with rolling fields, colorful costumes and standard editing tricks. When Leonardo is struck by an idea, his frantic and pretty pencil drawings come to life, swirling and building around him, much like a commercial for, I don’t know — software? Soy milk? Credit cards?
Created and written by David S. Goyer (who co-wrote Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” Batman films), “Da Vinci’s Demons” breezily and capably finds a balance between amusing wit and dour drama.
Devil-may-care Leonardo is a busy polymath, living off the largess of Florence’s temperamental Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), who tolerates the genius’s antics when Leonardo promises to devise new military machines to ward off the troops of Pope Sixtus IV, who heads a cabal of evil. It’s the pope (James Faulkner) who is burdened with playing the vicious gay stereotype here, preying like a crocodile on young men who have the misfortune of taking a dip in his vast Vatican hot tub.
“Da Vinci’s Demons” heads off in a lot of different directions, as our easily distracted Renaissance Man, Leonardo, discovers from a wayward mystic that he’s part of a kooky lineage of supergeniuses.
This part of the plot puts Leonardo in the dangerously ho-hum genre of shows about differently abled sleuths who see details others don’t and whose minds run off high-speed broadband while the simpletons around them remain strictly dial-up. But Riley takes the role of Leonardo for a real joyride, giving “Da Vinci’s Demons” a spark of invention it would otherwise lack.
(one hour) premieres Friday at 10 p.m. on Starz.