Help, I’m Hooked on This Silly CW Drama About a Hot Leonardo da Vinci

·4 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Getty

From the moment Leonardo da Vinci introduced himself to another character with the words, “I’m Leonardo, from Vinci,” on the CW’s bonkers new drama, the writing was on the wall. “Yes,” I murmured aloud as my dogs looked on nervously. “Ha ha ha... YES!” As silly as Leonardo would inevitably be, I knew that I’d found my new obsession.

On paper, Leonardo is a deeply strange prospect—both for the CW and, really, as a show in general. Part biopic and part seedy mystery, this drama recruits Poldark’s Aidan Turner to play a sexy Renaissance artist on the edge. Hot da Vinci, we quickly learn, is a great genius whose talent, as one character solemnly tells us, “is forged by pain.” But when we meet him here, something is amiss. He’s also... being investigated for the murder of his muse?!

If all of this sounds a little out of character for the CW—a network primarily dominated by the Arrow- and Archie-verses—there’s a good reason for that. Leonardo is not an original for the network; it debuted last year in countries including Italy, The United Kingdom, Spain, and India. At the same time, given that we just found out the CW is a network for 58-year-old teens, there is some kismet to its choice to house this steamy historical fiction.

Anyone who remembers TNT’s dark, sexy Shakespeare series Will might catch a whiff of the familiar here. We open on a (completely fictitious) murder investigation, in which former Norman Bates and current Good Doctor Freddie Highmore (also an executive producer) plays an investigating officer who’s convinced that in spite of what seemingly everyone tells him, this eccentric painter with a resplendent beard is innocent.

Whatever Officer Freddie might think, former colleagues of the painter all seem to say the same thing: They fully believe da Vinci is capable of murder. Flashbacks catapult us between past and present as we observe the painter and inventor’s ups and downs: his triumphant rise to first apprentice at his art school, his ex-communication from said art school after a sodomy accusation, his excitement at securing his first commission, and his devastation at having screwed it up...

After a while, it’s not hard to understand why this da Vinci, at least, believes himself to be cursed.

But the choice to center da Vinci’s relationship with Caterina de Cremona, played here by The Undoing alum Matilda de Angelis, has struck some as strange. The subject of debate among historians in real life, the show’s Caterina takes up prime real estate in the series as da Vinci’s “muse.” Although Leonardo does delve into the artist’s romantic and intimate relationships with men to a degree, the da Vinci of the show seems like one of those “straight” men who have sex with men—not an artist who, by most accounts, was almost certainly gay.

Then again, that’s perhaps giving Leonardo’s relationship building too much credit. In truth, it’s hard to make heads or tails of this Leonardo’s relationship with Caterina; as this eight-episode series burns through plot, their rapport careens from an instant friendship to a potential romance to an intimate friendship—with plenty of fights and pit stops for confusion in between. The clearest truth about this relationship, as the series presents it, is that both artist and muse are outcasts who find solace in one another.

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As strange as Leonardo might seem for the CW, fans of the network’s old fantasy series Reign might enjoy a historical fiction—especially as fantasy makes its comeback with Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series and HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. There’s a little less room here for lush costume design—although Caterina does get some nice Renaissance fits—but what this occasionally grimy series lacks in elegance, it makes up with heart.

Turner’s performance can flit between childlike innocence and full-grown-man despondence at the drop of a hat. The Being Human actor makes his character easy to root for, even (or perhaps especially) when you want to slap him across the face and ask him what the hell he’s thinking. De Angelis plays Caterina as soft but smart, and Highmore seems to be having a great time playing the detective with a wise twinkle in his eye.

All of this to say, it took merely one afternoon for this writer to tear through the first four episodes of this ahistorical historical drama. And you know what, why not? It’s great fun, even (or perhaps especially) at its silliest. There’s enough intrigue going on to keep viewers guessing—a lot of people get poisoned in this world—and I’m a sucker for any show that embraces the allure of the curly wig and the puffy shirt. Long live Leonardo!

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