Tom Riley stars as Leonardo Da Vinci in "Da Vinci's Demons." (Greg Wiliiams / Adjacent,…)
Like its title character, "Da Vinci's Demons" prefers to flaunt rather than follow, flagrantly borrowing from film, television and video games to create something new, inarguably flawed, possibly revolutionary and certainly fun to watch.
For several years, Starz has been flailing around in search of a show that would satisfy the youthful proclivities of its "Spartacus" audience while lending the network a bit more artistic heft. With its "Assassin's Creed" overtones and "Game of Thrones" top notes, "Demons" should satisfy the former, and even a story that too often turns Leonardo da Vinci into a Florentine Sherlock Holmes can't diminish the artistic heft of the original Renaissance man.
After a quasi-mystical "Leonardo liked to get stoned" opener, creator David S. Goyer flamboyantly uses "Downton Abbey's" Hugh Bonneville to quickly establish the show's premium cable status: Bonneville's Duke of Milan greets the morn by first urinating, naked and on-camera (when did this become the new hallmark of cable's hard R?) before hustling his young male concubine out of bed so he can join his family at Mass, where he is promptly, and bloodily, murdered.
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It's difficult to imagine a huge PBS/Starz crossover — any fans of "Downton Abbey" drawn by Bonneville will no doubt spend those crucial first moments thinking, "Great heavens, Lord Grantham, put your pants on." Or laughing out loud, as I did, when he calls for "coddled eggs," because his "bowels are in a tumble."
Which is, no doubt, just what Goyer, whose writing credits include "The Dark Knight," "Blade: Trinity" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops" had in mind. Although they are both highly romanticized period dramas relying on full-immersion detail — waste management and women's undergarments seem to be the go-to shorthand for establishing time-frame integrity these days — "Demons" moves too quickly to take itself too seriously, despite its quite serious subject matter.
The murder of Milan's duke is, after all, just the latest move in a deadly game of chess being played between Rome and Florence, Italy's two most powerful city-states. Here, Rome is embodied by Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner), just the sort of blood-thirsty, hypocritically degenerate (the real Sixtus jump-started the Inquisition) leader that Thomas Cromwell later used to justify his Catholic holocaust.
Florence, by contrast, is 15th century San Francisco, teeming with artists, poets and other radical thinkers. Why, the young Da Vinci (Tom Riley) asks his faithful assistant Nico (Eros Vlahos) as they wander the colorful market places and piazzas, would anyone live anywhere else?
Well, because a) Rome is planning to smash it under its papal fist and b) Florence is run by the Medicis, who aren't exactly free-thinkers either — although Lorenzo, as in the Magnificent (Elliot Cowan), is a bit more reasonable than his hotheaded brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman), who treats Da Vinci as if he were just another dime-a-dozen huckster.
But Da Vinci needs the Medicis, and not just for the obvious patronage-driven reasons. No, on that same marketplace stroll, Da Vinci pulls a Dante, falling at first glance for Lorenzo's mistress, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock).
And the rest is history, or at least history-adjacent. Using the kind of flip-board animation and ticktock observation that Guy Ritchie brought to "Sherlock Holmes" against a CG set straight out of "Assassin's Creed" and an uber-mystery that does more than nod at "The Name of the Rose," Goyer creates a graphic novel-modern version of Da Vinci's early years.
It's all great fun, a feast of eye and mind candy into which a few shreds of leafy greens have been added for content. If you think about "Da Vinci's Demons" too hard, you might become dispirited by the underlying assumption that a more realistic portrayal of a life even as extraordinary as Leonardo Da Vinci's needs to be embellished with hot carnival sex and murderous mysticism to make good TV.
But with secret societies, prototypical machine guns and the "Mona Lisa" lurking somewhere in the future, there's really no need to think. Just put down the remote control for an hour and enjoy.
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