Tom Riley and Laura Haddock
The life of Leonardo da Vinci was dazzling and eventful enough that, even played straight, it probably could drive a successful historical drama series. Instead, however, David S. Goyer (FlashForward) has used Da Vinci and his world as a jumping-off point for Da Vinci’s Demons, a very promising new historical fantasy premiering tonight on Starz.
Set primarily in 15th century Florence, Italy, the series introduces us to Leonardo (Tom Riley) in his twenties, on the cusp of fame but still searching for a patron. Cocky and impetuous, he looks like a rock star in his provocative leather outfits (by all appearances, Leonardo apparently invented hair gel at some point), but as the illegitimate offspring of a local nobleman and a servant whose face he can’t remember, Leonardo is haunted by a need to clarify his identity – particularly regarding a mysterious episode in his childhood that he can recall only in fragments.
He crosses paths with Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig, 24, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), aka The Turk, an enigmatic figure who shares a mind-expanding pipe bowl with Leonardo and tells him some of the answers he is seeking may be found in a mystic volume called The Book of Leaves, which, alas, is also highly sought after by the ruthless Count Riario (Blake Ritson), nephew to Pope Sixtus (James Faulkner) in Rome.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), the de facto ruler of Florence, commissions Leonardo to paint a portrait of his mistress, the beautiful Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), but Medici also becomes fascinated with Leonardo’s sketches for war machines and hires him to create new weaponry to help protect Florence in the looming conflict with the surrounding papal states, whose formidable armies are led by Count Riario. Smitten by Lucrezia’s breathtaking beauty, Leonardo rashly embarks on a torrid affair with her, one that could turn deadly: Unbeknownst to both Medici and Leonardo, Lucrezia is working her own agenda, one that is unlikely to help either man.
It’s probably obvious to you by now that Goyer throws a staggering amount of information at us in tonight’s premiere episode, and forgive yourself if you find yourself struggling to sort out all the characters and where they stand in the immensely complicated Renaissance power plays that figure throughout the story. Just go with it: By the time you hit the second episode, the storytelling becomes much more focused and you’ll start to work things out with relative ease.
And trust me, Da Vinci’s Demons is worth the effort. I know Starz has had a somewhat spotty track record with its original series, apart from its guilty-pleasure Spartacus saga, but Goyer’s series is intelligently written, well acted and lushly produced. As we expect these days, the scenery is CGI-enhanced, but the juncture of what is real and what is computer-generated is surprisingly seamless, and designer Annie Symons’ eye-popping costumes give a fantastic twist to historically accurate garb of the period. And while Goyer does take Leonardo on flights of fancy, he’s careful to keep the story anchored in Italian Renaissance reality.
This being Starz, I probably don’t need to add that sex and nudity are plentiful, yet not truly gratuitous (although Downton Abbey fans may be stunned to see a major cast member from that international smash contributing a small, uncredited and extensively nude cameo appearance during the opening moments of tonight’s premiere). So if you were thinking this might be an ideal way to spoonfeed the kids some world history: not so much.
I’ve seen the first three episodes and they only left me wanting to see more. Riley is ideally cast as the mercurial title character and so far, the story moves at a very brisk clip, and looks glorious as it does so. Da Vinci’s Demons just may be the most promising original series Starz has fielded to date. If adult sexual content isn’t an automatic deal-breaker for you, check it out.