The pilot for the Starz period fantasy-drama "Da Vinci's Demons" is a hot historical mess. "Demons" spends too much time with its eponymous lead in 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.
Episode two offers a stronger hour that shows promise for a entertaining series.
"Da Vinci's Demons" premieres Friday at 10 p.m. after the series finale of "Spartacus." After this week, "Da Vinci's Demons" will air at 9 p.m. Fridays.
Unlike "Spartacus," the first scripted hit for Starz, "Da Vinci's Demons" doesn't serve up rivers of blood, but it's not afraid to to shock.
The demons, at least in this world, are the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. A naked Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner, "Bridget Jones' Diary") appears in an opulent cross-shaped hot tub with a knife to the throat of a naked boy who 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 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 the inventor's creations.
In the first hour, da Vinci tests his glider 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), builds an entertaining, if improbable, contraption for Florence's Easter celebration.
Mr. Riley's da Vinci has two faces: He's an impolitic, arrogant, merry prankster who flouts authority in an easy-going manner. But when he's stumped by an invention, he huffs 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 him 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 has value to the leaders of Florence, offering himself as a military engineer to 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 a lot like Lucrezia. Viewers may wonder "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'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. Mr. 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'a al Ghul communing scenes from the Christopher Nolan "Batman" movies.
If Mr. Goyer fumbles the pilot in introducing Leonardo's world, he salvages the endeavor in episode two with a good story about da Vinci's inventions for 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.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.