In one of the most fitting transitions of the TV season, Starz’s series premiere of “Da Vinci’s Demons” immediately follows the series finale of the network’s signature hit “Spartacus.” Both shows mix generous doses of sex and violence with historical details that could best be described as … creative.
Not that historical accuracy is the point of this brand of Starz series. They’re really all about the bare skin, buckets of blood, and enough soapy twists and turns to keep viewers hooked. Some detractors may write them off as guilty pleasures, but why feel guilty if watching a show is actually pleasurable?
While the first two episodes of “Da Vinci” are overly convoluted — good luck keeping track of who’s who, what their allegiances are, and sometimes even what they look like in the more dimly lit “atmospheric” scenes — the action moves at such a rapid pace and unfolds with such giddy enthusiasm that it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride. What’s more difficult is caring about who’s involved.
Tom Riley (of the U.K. series “Monroe”) plays the twentysomething Leonardo da Vinci as a mix of brash playboy and tortured genius. He’s a prototypical adventure series lead whose good looks and aggressively charming personality mask a wounded soul underneath. Whether or not Riley’s take is anything remotely like the real Leonardo da Vinci is far from the point. There’s not much depth to any of the characters in these early episodes, but Riley does the heaviest lifting of the bountiful ensemble cast and emerges as a likable enough leading man.
He’s surrounded more by types than flesh and blood people, most notably: Laura Haddock as the seductive and mysterious Lucrezia Donati, Blake Ritson as snarling villain Count Girolamo Riario (nephew of Pope Sixtus IV — kind of the show’s Big Bad), Elliot Cowan as the arrogant Lorenzo Medici, Gregg Chillin as gregarious underworld insider Zoroaster and Eros Vlahos as da Vinci’s awe-struck assistant Niccolo Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli). Lara Pulver (“Sherlock”) is also part of the cast as Medici’s wife Clarice, but doesn’t have much to do in the first two episodes.
If creator David S. Goyer (who worked with Christopher Nolan on his Batman trilogy, handling script or story duties for each film) can properly develop these characters and differentiate their relationship with Da Vinci, the cast appears capable of rising to the challenge and giving viewers something to invest in beyond a glossy surface and shadowy conspiracy theories.
The legions of “Spartacus” fans certainly loved that show, and while there’s no guarantee “Da Vinci” will go over as well, it’s a better attempt at appealing to the base than Starz’s failed “Camelot” was a few years ago. And even if it’s not a “Spartacus”-sized hit “Da Vinci” also seems likely to draw a bigger audience than the network’s unsuccessful attempts to go highbrow with shows both well-regarded (“Boss”) and not (“Magic City”).
Unless the storytelling dramatically improves over the course of its 8-episode first season, “Da Vinci” isn’t going to earn Starz much respect. But this sort of harmless fun is unlikely to draw much disdain either. Except maybe from history teachers.
Watch the official trailer for “Da Vinci’s Demons”: