Da Vinci’s Demons (Starz, Fridays, 10 p.m.) is the funniest unintentional comedy of the year. This goofball historical fantasy imagines Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) as a cocky comic-book hero making war weapons for the Medicis and the gangsters of the Church while creating fabulous inventions, shtupping Lorenzo Medici’s mistress (Laura Haddock), yammering about the power of imagination, and flashing back to childhood trauma while smoking opium with a mysterious Muslim from Constantinople.
The Muslim, Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig), is a drug-addled Middle Eastern version of Yoda, or the Magical Negro character who’s always helping white Hollywood heroes on their missions, and he has many of the show’s most deliriously over-the-top scenes, guiding da Vinci through his opium flashbacks and telling him about the Book of Leaves, which, um … er … I’ve only watched the first three episodes of Da Vinci’s Demons, so I can’t say for sure what it is, just as I can’t say for certain what, precisely, the relationship is between da Vinci, the Medicis, the Church, Al-Rahim, and the other forces jostling for viewer attention. The tale seems to be headed in a Chariots of the Gods direction; perhaps da Vinci isn’t creating new devices and techniques, but rediscovering knowledge that humanity had, then lost; the forces of darkness and ignorance don’t want that knowledge rediscovered. Da Vinci is a savior figure, another Jesus or Zoroaster or Neo, out to enlighten the race, win or prevent a war, prove himself to his hateful father, learn what happened to his sainted mother, and maybe defeat the Stonecutters while he’s at it.
Da Vinci’s Demons grafts sub-Matrix touches onto the story of a real artist and inventor, along with C-plus computer-generated cityscapes, mechanical beasts, and tediously familiar scenes of priests and government officials whispering in candlelit rooms, cavorting with boy toys, banging their mistresses in stables, torturing prisoners and slitting throats. (“Stick to your whirligigs and parlor tricks, da Vinci!” one snarls.) That’s not a deal-breaker, though; Game of Thrones and The Borgias thrive on a similar mix of arty and trashy elements. The merger of historical fact and sci-fi-inflected dreamscapes isn’t a deal-breaker, either. There are many precedents for it, and it could have been splendid in the right hands. But these aren’t the right hands. Series creator David S. Goyer — who penned many fantasy and sci-fi scripts, some memorable, others awful, and who wrote and directed tonight’s pilot — seems to be going for exuberance; but Da Vinci’s Demons is never exuberant enough to overcome a crippling combination of leadenness, silliness, and mediocre storytelling.
The show is a compendium of worn-out modern blockbuster tropes: flash cuts, gratuitous slow motion, gradually expanding flashbacks, mommy and daddy issues, “You are having a wonderful time, dammit!” underscoring. There’s only one really good scene in the pilot: da Vinci sketching birds in flight, their trajectories observed in super-slow motion (one of the few inventive uses of that technique) while the artist draws them, his penciled approximations seeming to merge with the real birds. (Da Vinci’s animated sketches are the best thing in the show.)
Everything else is good-enough-for-government-work, or good enough for Starz. Most of the men’s costumes look as though the characters are en route to a Chelsea bartending gig; da Vinci’s go-to ensemble — boots, leather jacket, and blouse open to the sternum — seems poignantly incomplete without leather pants. Toward the end of the pilot there’s a tryst that manages to combine, by my count, eight sex-scene clichés, including masks, fireworks, and cross-cutting with an event that occurred earlier. (If Riley’s torso is any indication, da Vinci’s inventions included the Nautilus machine.) The! Entire! Show! Has! Exclamation Points! After It! Even the whispers are INTENSE!!!! It’s like Shakespeare in Love plus The Borgias plus Elizabeth times a head injury.
At this point, you may be thinking, This show sounds like fun, or at least a guilty pleasure — maybe I’ll check it out. Don’t. The cast plays every scene with feeling — particularly Riley, who’s cocky and lovable even when he’s being beaten by goons or bled with leeches or screaming, “I am the son of Earth and starry sky!” during a hallucination — but the net effect is still like hearing an undistinguished score performed by virtuoso musicians. Da Vinci’s Demons is too committed to hate, but not brilliantly weird enough to achieve camp status. It’s more fun to make fun of than it is to watch. But watch I will, if only to witness the inevitable moment when we learn that da Vinci put that smile on Mona Lisa’s face with another of his inventions.