Da Vinci's Demons: TV Review

TV Review Da Vinci's Demons - H 2013

TV Review Da Vinci's Demons - H 2013

Mining the Renaissance man's "lost years," the series brings unapologetic entertainment to period drama.

David S. Goyer takes out the stuffiness and pomposity in the "historical fantasy," which follows Leonardo Da Vinci in his early life.

Given that Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most interesting people in history, it’s surprising nobody has taken a swing at a television series about him.

Hell, he was the original Renaissance man. He’s the reason for the description. But nobody wanted to take a dramatic stab at what his life might have been like? Insane.

Until now.

David S. Goyer, who wrote the re-imagined Dark Knight trilogy among many other things (he’s prolific and, even when something like FlashForward on ABC doesn’t work, always pretty interesting), has created Da Vinci’s Demons for Starz. He wrote all or part of the first season’s eight episodes, directed the first two (he shares writing credit with Scott Gimple, the new showrunner from The Walking Dead, on the second episode) and already is at work on the second season.

And with good reason. Da Vinci’s Demons -- described as “historical fantasy” -- is a lot of fun, has base material that should be endlessly fascinating and focuses on a man who was as mysterious as he was talented. And that’s saying something since Da Vinci seemed to have God-given talents as an artist, inventor, polymath, visionary and free-thinker.

You could make a series about all the man’s achievements or a series about the mystery that surrounded his life or perhaps take the historical and religious elements (Florence, the Vatican, the Catholic Church in general) and weave a tapestry out of that. Or you could do what Goyer has done, which is mix them all together. And yet, his best move might be that he -- and Starz -- took the stuffiness and pomposity out the period-piece, costume-drama ideal so popular with the BBC and PBS and made it unapologetically entertaining.

Goyer immersed himself in Da Vinci's biographical information in preparation for the series and came upon something that really intrigued him: Despite all the information on the Renaissance man, much of his life in a five-year span from 27 to 32 is undocumented. Dramatic opportunity, anyone?

Tom Riley stars as Da Vinci living in Florence in this period, the late 1400s. His ideas come fast and furious -- so relentlessly he often smokes opium to dull his brain and does much of his best thinking with a glass of wine in his hand (as we all do). He has a trio of artist and fun-loving types who frequent his lair: muse Vanessa (Hera Hilmar), the rogue Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) and Nico (Eros Vlahos), who’s loyal and gullible enough to be the one testing out Da Vinci’s inventions.

But where Da Vinci finally excels is convincing the powerful Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) that Florence needs to stop relying on others to protect it and create an army, for which Da Vinci will design the weapons.

The element of Da Vinci’s Demons that adds the real intrigue is a combination of two ideas. The first is a modern Internet idea -- that all knowledge and information must be available to everyone. The second is a metaphysical (and religious) one, suggesting that everything that has happened or will happen is already known (and is being contained by the Vatican). If you’re guessing that Da Vinci’s Demons might be the next target of angry Catholic groups, you’ve guessed correctly (the pope bathing with boys, sanctioning murder, etc.).

But Goyer revels in the riches of the time -- the machinations of the Vatican and all of Italy; Da Vinci’s rare talents; theological and metaphysical debates; sex and scandal; the triumph of imagination and information -- it all makes for dramatic kindling. The cast in Da Vinci’s Demons is strong -- including the standout Blake Ritson, who plays Riario, Count and Captain-general of the Holy Roman Church, and of course Riley.

Some no doubt will say Da Vinci’s Demons is too slight or glossy. And while it might not be as serious-minded as Game of Thrones, it’s also not too distant a cousin. There’s a lot of material to mine here, and Goyer, Starz and Da Vinci’s Demons are off to an entertaining start.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com