Something about Da Vinci’s Demons, a new 8-part Starz miniseries, felt very familiar as I was watching its first two episodes. The handsome, fit young man, the flowing blouse (chest always exposed), the leather “tunic” that really just looks like a regular modern leather jacket, a portrait of a genius as a young, lusty rogue — yes, I’ve got it: it’s Shakespeare In Love! Tom Riley, as Leonardo da Vinci, is particularly reminiscent of Joseph Fiennes in his portrayal of a young and lusty William Shakespeare, and it’s neither a wholly good or wholly bad thing. Hit the jump for my preview of this upcoming drama (which is worth a watch) and why, as it says, “history is a lie.”
Leonardo da Vinci was may things, and I would use up all of my word count listing them. He was a genius, suffice to say, and as one of the most recognizable names and foremost thinkers in all of the ages of man, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for someone to make a TV show about him.
But the Da Vinci of Da Vinci’s Demons is not the white-beard of his self-portrait, but an endlessly energetic young man of 25, living in Florence at a time of great creativity and great political chaos (the show actually works very well as a contemporary companion to Showtime’s The Borgias, which returns Sunday). In David S. Goyer‘s version (Goyer is the lone American in an otherwise international production), Leonardo is full of life and lust (the latter goes against much of what is known about Da Vinci, but this is Starz and nudity is a prerequisite).
Historical license aside, this Leonardo is at his core the one we know: he is brilliant but has trouble finishing projects, he is a vegetarian, he is involved with the Medici family (who help financially back him) and he is obsessed and haunted by the idea of flight.
Goyer’s Leonardo has many other demons, though, and is literally haunted by a mysterious event in past as well as his inability to remember his mother’s face (despite his otherwise photographic memory). The series also manages to insert a driving plot about a mystical book that foretells the future, “The Book of Leaves,” which gets Leonardo mixed up with a cult known as the Sons of Mithras, as well as Roman agents attempting to take the book for themselves, securing the Vatican’s power over the Italian states and, well, the world.
The politics and mysticism and even Leonardo’s visions from the past are not the highlights of the show; rather, time spent on his inventions (and their executions) are the most intriguing. The series, like many these days, takes a page out of Sherlock‘s book and shows through animation and illustration the mental machinations of genius. In one particularly stunning sequence, Leonardo buys sparrows just to have them released, watching and mentally noting their every move so he can perfect his own flying machine.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s genius sprawled over many genres, and the show doesn’t seem to want to lock itself down in one genre, either. Speaking of Sherlock, Leonardo’s quest for the Book of Leaves as well as a penchant for showmanship and trickery make him very much in the mold of the famous detective, but the show also has traditional aspects of a mystery series and, of course, a period drama, though in that latter aspect it doesn’t absorb viewers into its world as fully as The Tudors or The Borgias (it’s not fair to compare it to Game of Thrones).
There are plenty of familiar elements at play here thematically, too: forbidden love, daddy issues, secret societies and a new onset of cultural liberalism. Leonardo even has his own band of followers: a sidekick, Nico (Paul Westwood as a young Machiavelli) and a friend, Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin). The real stand-outs though are Elliot Cowan as Lorenzo de’Medici, Leonardo’s chief benefactor and, in some ways, enemy, and Blake Ritson as the evil Roman Count Girolamo Riario. These are all, let it be noted, British actors — once again, the “everyone in the past, no matter where in the world, had a British accent” rule apparently still applies. They’re so great though, what fault can truly be found? (Speaking of British actors, there’s a sequence to start the series featuring Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey‘s staid Earl of Grantham in a way you’ve not seen him before — a very funny joke for Downton fans).
Da Vinci’s Demons is often fun, sometimes witty and occasionally ridiculous, though in a spring season so full of fantastic television, I’m not sure it measures up (on the other hand, at a mere eight episodes, it’s not a huge commitment). It has its charms (even if you’re not tempted by the Shakespeare in Love comparison) and seemed to be, by the end of the second episode, starting to hit its stride. And, with Starz putting the premiere online, it makes it easy to watch. Give it a shot.
Da Vinci’s Demons premieres Friday, April 12th at 9 p.m.