In the buoyant new historical fantasy series “Da Vinci’s Demons,” Leonardo da Vinci might as well be the guy who invented the latest greatest social media app. He’s a technological geek with strong people skills and an ability to market his concepts, and he’s probably not much like the real da Vinci, the 15th-century Italian Renaissance man.
But he is a dynamic hero in this fact-fiction-mash-up, which premieres on Friday night at 10. In his 20s (played by Tom Riley), he is a visionary, a brilliant swordsman, and a savvy romantic whose sketches of potential lovers can lure them into his bed. He has a sizable ego, as he bends the world to his will, but he also has a healthy sense of humor about himself. His weakness is that he becomes so overwhelmed by his newfangled ideas about how to build weapons or flying machines, as well as by deep memories of his troubled childhood, that he has to smoke opium for respite and clarity.
Created by David S. Goyer, whose writing credits include the “Dark Knight” Batman trilogy, “Da Vinci’s Demons” gives us a superhero of sorts, earthbound but able to accomplish seemingly magical things in a single bound.
Goyer has imagined a lively world around his da Vinci, who recalls Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare in “Shakespeare in Love.” The show is a costume drama, but it’s so filled with adventure and eccentricity that it never feels stuffy. Da Vinci has been given a few sidekicks, including the innocent Nico (Eros Vlahos) and the swindling Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin), and they provide bits of comic relief when their leader takes life too seriously.
At the same time, “Da Vinci’s Demons” includes instances of brutality, including beheadings and hangings. The show doesn’t quite fetishize those images, but they are nonetheless gruesome. In one scene, which is bound to be attacked by some within the Catholic Church, we see Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) in a pool in a sexual embrace with a boy – holding a knife against the boy’s throat. After Count Girolamo Riario enters the pool area and shares secret information with the pope, who is his uncle, Riario silences the boy permanently.
By the end of the second episode, the story line gains momentum as Riario, played with witty villainy by Blake Ritson, becomes one of da Vinci’s sworn enemies. Both men are on a search to find the mysterious “Book of Leaves.” Meanwhile, da Vinci is courting trouble by convincing Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) to give him money to develop new weaponry while simultaneously seducing Medici’s mistress, Lucrezia (Laura Haddock, who looks like Angelina Jolie). His hostile father, who never married his mother, works for the Medicis and warns him to stay away, but that only fuels his desire to deepen his involvement with the wealthy family. The guy likes a few good challenges.
The plot strands don’t always come together smoothly, some of da Vinci’s mystical, drug-addled visions are pretentious, and the CGI re-creating 15th-century Florence is spotty. And the general tone of the show will not satisfy anyone looking for a serious take on a historical figure or era. But “Da Vinci’s Demons” is an entertaining series with one huge factor working in its favor: Unlike so much of what we see on TV lineups, it aims to be different.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew