Tom Riley

British actor Tom Riley stars as Leonardo da Vinci in Starz’ “Da Vinci’s Demons,” premiering tonight at 9.


The title may sound like an anthology of author Dan Brown’s best sellers, but in fact this new series falls into an increasingly popular genre: historical fantasy.

(“I’m sure Peter Stuyvesant was a perfectly capable administrator. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if he could shoot lasers out of his eyes that would kill zombies?”)

In this Starz original, which debuts at 9 p.m. today after the series finale of “Spartacus,” our dashing hero is the quintessential Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci (rakishly played by Brit Tom Riley).

He is described in the press material as an “artist, inventor, swordsman” That last title is meant, I believe, to cover both senses of the word.

Leo can charm Lorenzo Medici (Elliott Cowan) as well as Lorenzo’s mistress, Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock). One into business, one into bed.

And if there’s a situation this insolent, prankish genius can’t talk his way out of, well, en garde. Da Vinci can best a whole squadron of the pope’s armored thugs.

All this while tossing off exquisite sketches and schematics for machines that are centuries before their time.

That’s enough fodder for two series. But “Da Vinci’s Demons” creator David S. Goyer tacks on an additional and ambitious element: mysticism.

When we meet da Vinci, he is smoking a hookah packed with some substance that gives him vivid visions. He is often riddled with opaque guidance by a mysterious Turk (Alexander Siddig).

Hey, we thought we were meeting the guy who painted the Mona Lisa. How did we wander into a Carlos Castaneda book?

Suffice it to say “Da Vinci’s Demons” (warning: it contains nudity, violence, and profanity) has a lot of balls in the air. But it manages this juggling act with aplomb. The British cast is excellent, and the series, shot in Wales, does a pretty job of simulating early Renaissance Florence.

Like many period productions on TV, it falls down only in the crowd scenes — for instance, an unconvincing carnivale.

“Da Vinci’s Demons,” though decidedly anachronistic and self-satisfied at times, is quite diverting.

Make sure you don’t miss the first scene. You’ll see a side of “Downton’s” Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) that will shock you.

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