The CW has imported a lot of shows to fill in its schedule, especially during the summer. Not all of them skew young, and Leonardo, which premiered in Europe in 2021, is an example. As the title indicates, it’s about the creative life of Leonardo da Vinci, couched in a murder mystery that ensnares him as its prime suspect.
LEONARDO: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: “I was expecting a giant, lightning bolts flying out of your fingers,” says a voice as we see a scene, shot at floor level, of a man frantically looking for something as the authorities come to arrest him for murder.
The Gist: That person is Leonardo da Vinci (Aidan Turner), and he’s been arrested by authorities in Milan for murdering his muse Caterina de Cremona (Matilda De Angelis). Questioning him is Stefano Giraldi (Freddie Highmore), an Officer of the Duchy of Milan. As Giraldi tries to figure out whether Leonardo actually killed Caterina, the artist starts telling the story of how they met. “An enigma like the sky, that’s what she was to me,” Leonardo says.
Flash back to Florence, 16 years earlier. Caterina is being used as a model for art students of the exacting master Andrea del Verrocchio (Giancarlo Giannini). Everyone else in the class considers her just a model, but Leonardo sees something in her and examines every detail about her, from the calluses on her hands to the candle wax in her hair. He tries to tell her that she has “a quality,” but it comes out wrong and she leaves his presence insulted.
While his classmates are concerned about del Verrocchio picking his first apprentice, Leonardo sits at the pub watching his hand move in candlelight. He approaches Caterina to be his personal model, and they get along well; he tells her that he draws what he sees in a person, not what he thinks other people will like. She pleads with him not to include a scar on her back, but he can’t help it; that’s part of what he sees in her. At first, she’s devastated, but then she brings the painting to del Verrocchio. Between that and the anonymous sketches of a crane that was able to allow a cross to be added to the steeple of the church, del Verrocchio decides that Leonardo has “the gift” and makes him his first apprentice.
His first work for the master attracts the attention of Ludovico Sforza (James D’Arcy), the Duke of Milan, who offers Leonardo a job. He turns it down to keep working for the master. But his work with the master has cost him Caterina, who has started a relationship with his rival.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Given the fact that we’re going to be showing da Vinci in his Florence days, the series Da Vinci’s Demons comes to mind.
Our Take: Leonardo, created by Frank Spotnitz and Steve Thompson (Turner, Highmore and D’Arcy are among the executive producers), could have gotten bogged down in the historical part of da Vinci’s early years. But by couching the flashbacks in terms of a murder mystery, the veteran showrunners put the story in a place to be more contemporary and faster-paced.
Like Da Vinci’s Demons before it, Leonardo is trying to show sides of the master that might be new to people who only know him from his most famous works and designs. How much of Turner’s depiction of da Vinci is based on actual factual evidence is unknown, but the Poldark star infuses that sense of wonder that led da Vinci to be such a unique artist, alchemist, and architect/engineer.
The key to this series is the supporting cast, from Highmore to D’Arcy to De Angelis. All of them put in fine performances, and it brings up the quality of the series, even when the script sometimes bogs down in speechifying, like when master del Verrocchio talks to Leonardo about the different kinds of light that an artist needs to capture in his work.
Given that the show has already been picked up for a second season, it’s not a stretch to say that Leonardo was a success in England, Italy, and the other European countries that streamed/aired the show when it debuted in 2021. Given the CW’s new initiative to make its programming match its viewers’ age group, it’s also not a stretch to think that the mini-net will import the show’s second season at some point.
Sex and Skin: Leonardo and Caterina kiss, but he then pulls back, scared that Caterina is seducing him for personal gain.
Parting Shot: After his promotion is threatened by his boss, Girardi tells him he’s going to “make sure Leonardo hangs.”
Sleeper Star: Highmore is always a magnetic presence in any show he does, including The Good Doctor, and in his few scenes as Girardi, he’s equally magnetic. You actually believe he’s going to get Leonardo convicted at the beginning of this season.
Most Pilot-y Line: Del Verrocchio had some pretty cruel remarks for one student’s work: “Does your mother love you? Good, because I don’t. Apes have more talent. Get out of my studio.” It’s a line to establish how demanding he is, but yikes.
Our Call: STREAM IT. If you approach Leonardo as more murder mystery than historical drama, you’ll enjoy it more. Good performances and a relatively quick pace should also keep viewers engaged.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
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