Starz doesn’t exactly have a consistent brand identity – other than a fondness for nudity at any and all opportunities – but since former HBO chief Chris Albrecht took over, there’s been a more overt attempt to resemble his old employer. Neither “Boss” (since canceled) nor “Magic City” (returning this summer) have been in a class with the best of what Albrecht greenlit at HBO, but they’ve at least felt like the kinds of shows he would have approved in the early-mid ’00s: cinematic gloss, anti-heroes caught between good intentions and criminal realities, award-baiting performances, etc.
“Da Vinci’s Demons,” which debuts tonight at 10 (after the series finale of Starz flagship “Spartacus”), is not that. Created by David Goyer (who co-wrote the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, but who has also been responsible for a number of forgettable TV shows like “FlashForward”), it doesn’t resemble Albrecht’s old HBO output so much as it does ’90s syndicated action dramas like “Xena: Warrior Princess” – albeit made on a much bigger budget and with lots of Starz-approved language and nakedness. (You will never look at a certain “Downton Abbey” castmember the same way again after their cameo here.)
Tom Riley stars as Leonardo da Vinci, here recast as something very close to a superhero. He’s the great artist and inventor of record, but he’s also a master swordsman, a detective with a Holmes-ian eye for detail, an explorer of matters supernatural, and a devil with the ladies. Over the course of the four episodes I’ve seen, DaVinci gets caught in the middle of a war between the Pope and the Medici clan of Florence, becomes obsessed with a mystical quest suggesting that history itself is a lie, and has a tendency to blow things up real good.
Like most of Goyer’s solo creations, the show has more ideas than it knows quite what to do with; his best work tends to come with strong collaborators who pare Goyer’s vision down to something manageable. The premiere episode is so overstuffed with incident, conspiracy and expository dialogue as to almost feel like parody, but the show settles down a bit in later hours. There’s a mix of specific problems for da Vinci to solve (an invention to perfect, a mystery to explain) along with the bigger arc involving the Medicis, the Pope and the mystics. da Vinci’s inventions (most of which he was never able to build in real life) are fun, and several of the supporting performances are quite good, particularly Blake Ritson as a Vatican enforcer with an air of weary pragmatism. He does terrible things, but mainly he just seems disappointed that people insist on standing in his way.
Riley’s likable enough in the lead role, but the writing seems to call for more of a spark of divine madness than he’s either asked or able to offer. The da Vinci who looked at the world differently enough to dream of flying machines and tanks and solar power should come across as something more than a handsome action hero with well-groomed stubble, but that’s largely what he is.
I’m at times asked whether it’s fair to judge a show based on the channel that it’s on. Would, for instance, “The Killing” have been looked on more kindly if it had aired on NBC rather than AMC? I tend to think that a good show is a good show, and a bad show is a bad one, regardless of whether it’s airing on the home of “Mad Men” or the home of “Celebrity Apprentice.” But it can definitely be puzzling when a new show doesn’t seem to fit the brand of the channel it’s on – even if it’s a channel like Starz where the brand keeps shifting every couple of years.
Ultimately, I found “Da Vinci’s Demons” ridiculous but fairly amiable. (I could imagine 14-year-old Alan really enjoying it, and not just because of the topless women.) It doesn’t really fit the direction Albrecht started pushing Starz in when he arrived, but the channel has a number of other period adventures in development, so perhaps this is the new direction. Copying the HBO playbook isn’t so simple, even when one of the playbook’s authors is involved, so why not try something else? Both “Boss” and “Magic City” struggled to attract viewers; why not provide a cracked mirror view of history with fencing, fighting, magic and sex?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org