Cable has seen a number of epic historical dramas popping up over the past decade. From Rome to Spartacus to Game of Thrones, it’s quite obvious that TV audiences are perfectly content watching muscled men with beards yelling things without subtext while objectified women look on. I’m generalizing, of course, but that’s all I can do after watching the expensive piece of window dressing that is the Netflix Original Marco Polo. Because I’m certainly not thinking about the show itself.
We all know the basic story of Marco Polo, right? He’s a legendary traveler and was one of the first Europeans to make it through through to East Asia with a sizeable written record detailing his trek. It would be impossible for a TV series to deliver the proper amount of awe-inspiring adventure that Polo must have experienced, and so this series doesn’t even attempt to do that. Instead, it relegates Polo (played with zero gusto by Lorenzo Richelmy) to the narrative sidelines and chooses to deliver a fairly interesting story about Mongol leader Kublai Khan, played with opulent glory by Benedict Wong, and the challenges he faces in keeping his kingdom whole. But this show isn’t called Kublai Khan.
Though things do occasionally get exciting thanks to swords and army battles, Marco Polo is like a string of dialogue-heavy video game cutscenes with all of the interesting gameplay removed. Marco is granted to Kublai Kahn by his father Niccolò Polo (Pierfrancesco Favino), and there’s some story there, all delivered through tedious expository dialogue. He learns how to fight from blind master sensei (or whatever) Bayan the Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), who is like a coin-operated wisdom dispenser. Marco travels at times with Prince Jingim, the petulant heir to the Khan throne. Tell me this guy doesn't deserve a good slapping every five minutes or so.
Though many of the women characters here are used for their nudity and ability to act as if they give a badass massage, Kublai Khan’s better half Empress Chabi (Joan Chen) and the Blue Princess Kokachin (Zhu Zhu) are interesting in their own right. Though it might just be because the actresses are playing it well, because it’s not as if they’re given killer arcs to chew on.
Complain as I may, Marco Polo is still a highly watchable series because of its massive budget, especially here in America where native TV series about Asian empires of yore are impossible to find. Even though it isn’t actually China we’re looking at in Marco Polo, the locations are positively gorgeous, as are the sets that these characters are having their drab conversations in. There were many moments throughout where I found myself wondering how much hell it would have been to film some of these giant sequences. But the landscapes only remain beautiful when they’re the focus, instead of the slow-moving power struggle happening within Kublai Khan’s empire.
I know there are viewers out there who will absolutely go gaga for Marco Polo, and I can’t even find fault in that. It’s clearly a well-produced, well-researched project, even when it feels like Marco Polo must have been the most boring person ever. I don’t need my series to be exciting wall-to-wall action, nor do I need them to be exclusively contemporary, but I damned sure need them to be more than just the opposite of both. Netflix should pay attention to make sure its next series doesn’t send its subscribers packing for China.
Best part of Marco Polo? When someone calls Marco’s full name out, and it sounds like someone is playing the swimming pool game. A game, incidentally, that is a more enjoyable time than this show.
Watch the entirety of Marco Polo Season 1 on Netflix Instant.