On Friday, Netflix launched its latest original series, a lavish, 10-episode retelling of the story of Italian explorer Marco Polo, whose travels to China became the subject of a much read 13th century book. The show blends historical epic with romantic melodrama and kung fu battles to arrive at something that sure seems to be Netflix's attempt to launch its very own Game of Thrones.
Does the streaming service manage the trick? Frankly, no. But read on for slightly more nuance than that.
So what's this about anyway?
Rather than directly dramatize the travels of Marco Polo — which probably would have been impossible to do on a TV budget — the series takes viewers into the court of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan and one of the most successful heirs to Genghis Khan's throne. Kublai Khan's rule created much sectarian squabbling within the Mongol Empire, and Marco Polo depicts Khan trying to reunify his empire by quelling various rebellions and potential civil wars.
Except, yeah, the guy in the title is the main character, so we pretty much just see this through the eyes of an interloper who doesn't quite understand this new world he's found himself in. This has worked on TV before — bringing a new character into a pre-existing situation is one of the oldest first season tricks in the book — but Marco is so boring here that you rather wish he was a supporting character in his own show.
Is it worth watching?
Eh, not really, no. Maybe if you really like production values.
What's good about it?
1) The aforementioned production values are among the best in all of television. Netflix and The Weinstein Company (which produced) broke the bank on this, and it shows. There are gorgeous shots of riders making their way across the steppe (Kazakhstan, subbing in for China and Mongolia). The sets and costumes are exquisite. And when it comes time for big battles, you'd better believe this show is going to offer you some Game of Thrones-level showdowns.
2) The women are surprisingly complex and interesting, for such a male-dominated show. For the most part, the men (outside of Benedict Wong's take on Kublai Khan himself) are largely boring to follow around, but the show has a good eye for how a woman might define herself in this society. That's particularly driven home by Joan Chen's work as Empress Chabi, the Khan's wife, and Zhu Zhu's performance as Kokachin, the Blue Princess. If this were simply a show about women performing espionage in medieval China, I would be much more excited about it.
3) The action sequences are generally pretty good. True, they don't ever have as much going for them as a sword fight that concludes episode two. That one is between two men and has a whole empire riding on it. But it's still fun to see a show like this and have most of the big action moments involve kung fu or siege warfare, rather than two dudes punching each other in the face.
What's bad about it?
Almost everything else?
Your patience for endless scenes of courtly politics within the palaces of Kublai Khan may stretch further than mine. But if it doesn't, you're going to be deeply bored very quickly. I could make a laundry list of problems, but let's stick to three main ones.
1) The show is dramatically inert. By this I mean that the character's goals rarely feel personal to them, but, instead, are more about the collective goal of the empire and how they fit into that. That's actually fairly accurate, in a historical sense (as the wants and desires of individuals were far more often sublimated into grander causes), but it's death in terms of dramatic narrative. This means the show keeps returning to Marco, who is meant to have a dramatic arc but just doesn't. This is a show about Kublai Khan that doesn't realize it's about Kublai Khan because Marco Polo has better name recognition.
2) Marco Polo is a terribly boring character, particularly as played by Lorenzo Richelmy. It's easy to see why Richelmy was cast. He's got heartthrob written all over him. But Marco's voyage into the heart of Kublai Khan's court skirts far too close to the old "white savior" archetype in which a white European or American enters another culture, then shows it how it can better exist, to ever feel entirely comfortable. The show seems to think he's a more dynamic character than he actually is, treating his various explorations as dramatically interesting in and of themselves, when it's really just a bunch of footage of horses riding around. The series seems to briefly realize this around episodes six and seven, which are about other things, but the end of the season largely hinges on Marco again, to its detriment.
3) Those production values end up being an Achilles' heel. Yes, they're exquisite, but after yet another shot of some piece of special effects work or some set where everybody sits around and stares at each other for a while, you'll be wondering if that's the reason everybody made the show in the first place. There's not a story here, just a collection of very pretty incidents.
Do you have any theories as to why the show is this way?
Sure. The series was developed originally for Starz, the pay cable channel that desperately wants to catch up to HBO and Showtime and, thus, keeps tossing lots and lots of money into period pieces that look stunning but don't have much going for them on a story level. It's an easy way to stand out, but there also aren't that many big fans of, say, the network's pirate drama Black Sails out there, because the show is just so boring.
Yet Starz has begun to rise above itself, having taken the lessons of its early hit Spartacus (still the best show it's ever aired) and applied them to its recent sensation Outlander, which shows substantial promise. It's also started importing better British series, like The Missing, and it's showing flickers of a pulse.
Consequently, Marco Polo wasn't a good fit — particularly when production couldn't film in China. That meant the Weinstein Company needed to find somewhere else for it. Netflix, which often seems to choose projects based entirely on their surface-level appeal, was a solid fit. But, really, if you imagine a generic Starz series, you would probably land on Marco Polo.
That stinks. What should I watch instead?
Can I interest you in Game of Thrones?
Assuming you've seen that, it's worth it to find a way to catch up with Outlander, which does the whole bodice-ripping tales of the past thing right, or you could finally watch Spartacus, which is awesome.
If you're really into historical dramas about medieval Asian kingdoms, then there are a bunch of Korean dramas that may be of interest. Critic and novelist Genevieve Valentine, who knows the world of Korean TV better than any TV critic working in America, particularly urged me (and, by extension, you) to check out The Slave Hunters, Empress Ki, and The Great Queen Seondeok.
One problem, however, is that a big attraction for people when it comes to Marco Polo is that it's set in a world and country that not a lot of American series have ever taken stock of. And on that level, there's really nothing else quite like it.
If you're really invested in seeing the world of medieval China on screen (which is completely understandable), this is, sadly, your best bet in TV series form. But if you're OK with checking out a movie instead, consider the Chinese films Hero and Red Cliff. Both are handsomely mounted films that have much more going for them than Marco Polo.
How many times does Marco Polo say his name while standing in a swimming pool?
Sadly, he doesn't do this, but there is one scene early in the season where a character says "Marco ... ... ... Polo?" with a long pause in between first and last names that might make you chuckle.