If Netflix is to the 2010s what HBO was to the 2000s, Marco Polo is clearly intended to be the streaming service’s Game of Thrones. The series, which premieres its ten-episode first season today, is a genre epic with more mass-market appeal than prestige shows about women’s prisons. The problem is that where Game of Thrones managed to add action, scenery porn, and just-short-of-actual porn to the mix while retaining the intelligence and innovation we’d come to expect from HBO, Marco Polo has the typical weaknesses of a genre series along with the typical strengths.
Marco Polo establishes its premise quickly and efficiently. The title character, here re-imagined as a Historical Hottie with daddy issues, strikes out from 13th-century Venice looking for adventure and gets exactly what he wished for. Left behind in Kublai Khan’s court by his father and uncle so they can retain their rights to keep making bank on the Silk Road, Marco starts learning the customs of his new home as the Mongols prepare to go to war with the last remaining holdouts of China’s Song Dynasty.
To address the elephant in the room: yup, this is a show with an almost entirely non-white cast that still manages to center around a white guy. If we’re still running with the Game of Thrones comparison (which the show itself seems intent on making — the dramas even share a stock director, Alik Sakharov), Marco Polo is that uncomfortable plot line from Season 1 where Daenerys gets pawned off to the big, bad Dothraki and Learns Their Ways.
Though Marco, played by bona fide Italian Lorenzo Richelmy (he had to learn English for the role), functions as the Piper Chapman-esque Trojan horse here, most of the main story lines have nothing to do with him. There’s the impending war with the Song, currently holed up in the walled city of Xiangyang and embroiled in a power struggle between a widowed empress and a power-hungry chancellor; more interestingly, there’s an internal debate between Mongol traditionalists who want to retain their ethnic identity and Kublai’s more cosmopolitan vision of a world where all nations and cultures are united under his rule, reflected in his decision to educate his son Jingim in Chinese philosophy and culture.
Unfortunately, none of the show’s political debates are played out with much subtlety. That traditionalist-vs.-expansionist conflict, for example, is artfully illustrated by a scene where Jingim has sex with one of his three wives. “Does your Chinese wife do it like this?” she asks. Quality sexposition it’s not.
Marco Polo‘s dialogue doesn’t get better from there; like the plot, it’s rife with clichés. There’s a ~*mysterious, forbidden princess*~ (“Steer your eyes from her visage. She is beyond your reach”), a blind kung fu master, and a Machiavellian schemer with a thing for praying mantises. Occasionally, the show barrels over the line from ploddingly formulaic to enjoyably campy: a typical slo-mo fight scene becomes a naked slo-mo fight scene that made me laugh out loud, and the line “If you want Mongolia, COME AND TAKE IT!” is a real thing someone wrote into a script.
Still, the production quality and detail of Marco Polo are truly impressive — and unsurprising, given that it’s a product of the Weinstein Company. Creator John Fusco is the screenwriter behind both Hidalgo and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (remember that?), so there are plenty of epic rides across the steppe. And there’s the weird pleasure of recognizing none other than Joan Chen, Twin Peaks‘ Josie Packard, in the role of Kublai’s steely wife, Empress Chabi.
Marco Polo‘s an enjoyable watch for fans of historical drama, though sticklers for accuracy beware: there’s a decidedly inaccurate beheading around the end of Episode 2. The series is less a game-changer for Netflix, though, than an addition to its rapidly expanding portfolio. The company’s original programming arm has already locked down its A-game; Marco Polo is its latest venture into the realm of the B-minus.