Flipping Channels: Leonardo da Vinci, Renaissance Man of Action

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Period-piece dramas are ideally suited to pay cable, where the environment of creative freedom shames the networks. Nevertheless, it can result in either rewarding properties from remarkable creative teams — think Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire — or forgettable fodder that can't be salvaged by extensive nudity and vulgarity. It's not clear yet which will be the case with Starz's latest original series Da Vinci's Demons, which debuts 9 p.m. this Friday, April 12.

Viewers will certainly see a different Leonardo da Vinci than has ever been presented on television. The program was created by David S. Goyer, co-writer of The Dark Knight trilogy and the forthcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel. As Da Vinci, the show stars British actor Tom Riley, the producers' choice from more than 500 contenders both inside and outside America who auditioned and/or campaigned for the role.

"He's an in-your-face rule breaker who hates Michelangelo and thinks Botticelli is rubbish," said Riley to TV Guide. "Yet he's also a supreme humanist at a time of great ignorance, when only popes and kings had books. Leonardo believes all information should be free — a wickedly heretical notion as far as the Catholic Church is concerned. It gets him in big trouble."

Leonardo as the Julian Assange of the Italian Renaissance? That's only the first element liable to set the Vatican's miter a-tilt, since the show promises a hefty diet of two Starz staples: sex and violence. The show is set in 15th century Florence, and the company Da Vinci will be keeping ranges from spies to "working girls." He'll also be crossing paths with influential figures from the worlds of arts and politics as well as religion.

Expect the usual license with actual events and personalities — e.g., a new character called "The Turk" (Alexander Siddig) invented to serve as Da Vinci's combination aide/sidekick. The storyline also frequently explores the thin line between genius and insanity. While scholars may keel over at the sight of Leonardo da Vinci digging up graves, as if functioning as a one-man Florentine CSI unit, Starz could have another winner in terms of attracting youthful audiences.

Spartacus, destined to die, salutes you
What was once Starz's epic franchise concludes the same night Da Vinci's Demons makes its debut, as Spartacus: War of the Damned comes to its bloody end. It's not like the finale offers any surprises, since everyone remotely familiar with the tale knows what's coming. But it will be gory — not just by the standards of Starz, a channel that never seems to worry how high the bodies pile up, but by the show's own breathless pace of guttings, beheadings, throat-slittings and cleavings in twain. The arcs of CGI blood begin Sunday at 8 p.m.

Showtime's newest strange bedfellows
USA and TNT are locked in a tight battle for basic cable supremacy. Meanwhile Showtime, FX, AMC, even the Sundance Channel is no longer willing to concede the field to HBO when it comes to ambitious original shows and specials. A pair of Showtime's big guns hope to take a little attention away from HBO's Game of Thrones, which debuted last weekend, and has been an even bigger ratings smash this season than last.

Edie Falco's showcase Nurse Jackie returns for its fifth season April 14 at 8 p.m. The third year of The Borgias starts an hour later at 9 p.m. Both shows promise intriguing twists and the arrival of new characters, with the inaugural Nurse Jackie focusing on the turmoil generated by a major bus accident. This happens just as the hospital welcomes two new doctors to the rotation. Betty Gilpin is among the show's fresh faces, playing first-year resident Dr. Carrie Roman.

Papal politics will be the focal point for early episodes of The Borgias, which opens with Pope Alexander fighting for his life after being poisoned. While questions linger over whether he'll survive, various cardinals make attempts to take over. But the Borgias have other problems, with Catherina Sforza hiring her own assassin to remove them from power.

Neither of these productions rivals the popularity of Dexter or Homeland, but they've been decent performers (and Nurse Jackie has won critical plaudits for Falco). The Borgias boasts the services of an award-winning writer/producer/director (The Crying Game's Neil Jordan) and is among cable's more lavish shows. It has also focused on accurate presentation, down to minute details about architecture, cuisine, language and clothing.

Table talk
As part of its 60th anniversary year, TV Guide is regularly offering commemorative issues with special interview roundtables. The latest installment includes a lengthy discussion with 13 major television figures, most of them legends. (I wouldn't put Survivor's Mark Burnett on a panel alongside Carol Burnett or Carl Reiner, but that's just me.)

Whether you agree or disagree with their answers and premises, it is the kind of fascinating, multi-faceted discussion you seldom see, read or hear these days. It is also the type of dialogue sorely missing in a lot of television.

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