TV: Starz's period fantasy-drama 'Da Vinci's Demons' shows promise, even if it is a historical mess

 

The pilot episode for the Starz period fantasy-drama "Da Vinci's Demons" is a hot historical mess. "Demons" spends too much time with its eponymous lead putzing through the obligatory invention scenes (gliding machine? check) and not enough time building a world for Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) to inhabit or defining other characters for him to interact with.
 
But viewers who stay tuned for episode two will find a stronger hour of television that shows promise for a potentially entertaining series.
 
"Da Vinci's Demons" premieres Friday (April 12) at 10 p.m. EDT after the series finale of "Spartacus." After this coming week, "Da Vinci's Demons" will air at 9 p.m. Fridays.
 
Unlike "Spartacus," the first scripted hit for Starz, "Da Vinci's Demons" does not serve up rivers of blood. Still, the show is unafraid to shock.
 
Da Vinci's titular demons, at least in this world, are the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church -- a conceit sure to inspire howls of protest from some quarters. A naked Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner, "Bridget Jones's Diary") appears in an opulent cross-shaped papal hot tub with a knife to the throat of a naked boy (maybe he's a teen?) whom the pope seems prepared to kiss when his advisers barge in.
 
Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson, "World Without End") brings news of a Vatican-ordered murder and a report from a spy embedded in the House of Medici in Florence. Then, unsurprisingly for this era -- at least as depicted on cable TV-- the boy meets an unfortunate end.
 
Period dramas have become quite the rage on cable, and "Da Vinci's Demons" continues the trend. The April 12 premiere mimics Showtime's "The Borgias" in period, costume and settings, although "Da Vinci's Demons" is lighter in tone and more fantastical in its depiction of da Vinci's inventions.
 
In the first hour, da Vinci tests out his glider by using devoted young apprentice Nico Machiavelli (Eros Vlahos) as a guinea pig. Da Vinci also sketches topless former nun Vanessa (Hera Hilmar) and, with the help of hustler Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin), constructs an entertaining (if improbable) contraption for Florence's Easter celebration.
 
Riley's da Vinci at times seems bipolar: He's an impolitic, arrogant, merry prankster who flouts authority much of the time in an easygoing manner. But when he's stumped by design flaws in an invention, he huffs himself into a rage, destroying parts of his workshop. He's also a bit of a searcher who's scarred by his only childhood memory of his mother.
 
Da Vinci is drawn to the Turk (Alexander Siddig, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine"), who introduces da Vinci to the mythical Book of Leaves and sets him on a collision course with the Vatican.
 
This is where the show devolves into a series of drug-addled conversations about mythical gobbledygook and dialogue that includes, "Give me something to drink from the fountain of memory."
 
Please. Give me something resembling coherent dialogue and plot.
 
The one benefit of this murky mysticism: It allows "Da Vinci's Demons" to flout historical accuracy by having the Turk claim, "History is a lie that's been honed like a weapon by the people who have suppressed the truth."
 
Da Vinci may be a dreamer, but he eventually realizes he can have value to the leaders of Florence, offering himself up as a military engineer to an intrigued Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), whose mistress, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), catches da Vinci's eye.
 
Lorenzo also has a wife, Clarice (Lara Pulver, "Sherlock"), and in a bit of mistaken casting or perhaps too-similar makeup, Clarice looks too much like Lucrezia, making for some confusing scenes where viewers may be playing a guessing game of "Is that the wife or the mistress?"
 
And "Downton Abbey" fans, take note: Lord Grantham himself, actor Hugh Bonneville, has a brief, in-the-buff cameo in the pilot episode's opening moments.
 
"Da Vinci's Demons" was created by David S. Goyer, who also wrote and directed the pilot and co-wrote episodes two and three of the eight-episode first season. Goyer is best-known as co-writer of "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," and fans of those series will pick out similarities between the Turk-da Vinci scenes and Bruce Wayne-Ra's Al Ghul communing scenes from the Christopher Nolan "Batman" movies.
 
If Goyer fumbles the pilot somewhat in introducing Leonardo's world, he salvages the endeavor in episode two with a go-to story engine in da Vinci's inventions on behalf of the Medicis.
 
"Da Vinci's Demons," like "Spartacus" before it, proves that a pilot is not always the best a series has to offer; sometimes viewer patience with a new program will be rewarded.
 
(Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at rowen@post-gazette.com.)
 
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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