Genre television typically attracts a certain built-in audience which, regardless of the plot and cast, gleefully accepts the latest regurgitation of a familiar set of tropes and signifiers. Historical dramas are popular genre television, with shows like Outlander, Vikings, and, of course, Game of Thrones currently enjoying critical and commercial success. Netflix wanted a piece of the action, and on paper, Marco Polo meets all of the requisite criteria for becoming a genre hit: a Hollywood budget, an immense cast, and of course, Netflix’s distinct advantage, the ability to binge watch as the viewer pleases.
Marco Polo is a fictionalised historical drama that follows the Venetian explorer of the same name through his adventures in 13th-century China following his capture by Kublai Khan. Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) must learn to navigate through the politics and culture of life in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), grandson of Genghis Khan, who is in the midst of his quest to become emperor of the world and sees Marco as a valuable tool in this conquest.
Marco Polo is at times a feast for the eyes. The production values are breathtaking on a show that boasted a budget reportedly outstripped only by the show to which it owes its inspiration, HBO’s Game of Thrones. A sprawling multi-ethnic cast, stunning on-location shots in Malaysia and Kazakhstan, impressive action and meticulous costuming, Marco Polo looks to have spent its $90 million wisely. The camerawork and cinematography are undeniably gorgeous, but, sumptuous as the production is, the creative vision its peddling is emotionally empty. The show is instead a jumble of prestige tropes assembled in such a way that the series features moments of surprising brilliance that abut moments of astonishing daftness. It is devoid of narrative passion, and it lacks the raw ferocity and charisma of its counterpart Game of Thrones, not to mention its wealth of engaging characters.
Though the sensual and opulent visuals of Marco Polo go some way towards neutralising the overripe dialogue and undernourished performances, they cannot compensate for Richelmy’s unforgivable lack of screen presence. Marco’s dialogues are ridden with clichés and faux wisdom, so much so that it resembles a horoscope read aloud. It’s vague, and comes with an oriental tinge that borders on racist. Blame it on the writing or the vastly more powerful performances of Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and Tom Wu as Hundred Eyes, but the lifeless Richelmy is not so much a protagonist as he is an afterthought, often serving only as an impressively dressed conduit into this ancient and exotic world. Of course, this may well be intentional given that Marco Polo himself was only as fascinating as the stories he told, principally of the Chinese Emperor, grandson to Genghis Khan, to whom his adventure allows us access.
Nevertheless, Polo’s tenure under Kublai Khan is dreadfully dull, and the show haphazardly hops from one set piece to the next in its disjointed narrative, resulting in a spasmodic rhythm that is not conducive to a settled viewing, let alone a binge. Alternately tedious and salacious, mixing dull political manoeuvring with gratuitous sex scenes and cartoonish violence, the production occasionally jolts to life with the energy of a sudden brawl or assassination attempt, but it soon settles back into a state of mildly agitated, interwoven intrigue. Most baffling is the uneven balancing of these contrasts as the series lurches between modes without warning. Too often, then, genre works tend to skate by on aesthetic alone, and Marco Polo may well be one of those works.
At times, though, Marco Polo offers nuanced character drama, set in a world rarely brought to the Western screen: the empire of Kublai Khan, who ruled over a fifth of the world, and the Chinese Song dynasty, its perennial rival. While Marco Polo deserves credit for its positive presentation of Kublai Khan – the Mongol Khan assimilated in China wherein he founded its Yuan Dynasty – and of the Mongol story more generally, the show then proceeds to flout historical accuracy and undermine its own characters to play up orgies in the Khan’s harem and threesomes in his bedchamber. Historically accurate when it wants to be, the series is sloppy and intended to draw international attention, not plaudits. Indeed, others have proved capable of presenting women less dismissively.
Moreover, Marco Polo does little to justify the continued prevalence of the tiresome story of the white man visiting the “exotic” Orient. Though the mostly Asian actors are for the most part able to maintain the bare threads of the story, it is a disservice to the incomparable source materials to fall into such well-charted pitfalls of the storytelling about other cultures. In the hands of even a somewhat sensitive Western production, Marco Polo is uncomfortable to watch, a window into a culture that isn’t the West’s to adapt, and into which the maximum number of tropes have been awkwardly crammed. Yet, the most perplexing thing about Marco Polo is that the show is about the white male interloper to the Mongol Empire who somehow becomes the saviour of the Mongols, bringing the trebuchet to its armies hitherto stymied by the city walls of Xiangyang. Viewers accustomed to such heroic intervention from Westerners should note that the ingenious Mongols had already developed ballistic siege weapons sufficiently ruinous as to subdue every hostile city from Hungary in the West to Korea in the East. The Mongols ruled the largest contiguous empire in history – and they needed no help from Marco Polo to do so.
Marco Polo also feels unserious despite its roots in actual events. Its semi-historical basis should lend gravitas, but such is the dramatisation of Polo’s adventures that the show is left feeling far from grounded. In one remarkable sequence, a condemned Marco preaches to Kublai Khan the great strength and irrepressible resistance of Western Europe, so much so that he appears to convince the Great Khan to abandon his ambitious plans to conquer as far West as the Vatican. Yet, students of the history of the Mongol Empire will remark upon the great successes of the agile Mongol Horde against the cumbersome European knights it rendered obsolete, and they will also know that the Mongols conquest of Middle Ages Europe was in fact aborted due to the paling of the West’s meagre potential loot against that available in the vastly more prosperous East. Narrative liberties with historical events are, of course, fair game, but such sequences are superfluous given that the immensely rich source material is already attractively dramatic far beyond the capacity of the modern scriptwriter.
Still, there remains the faintest glimmer of potential. The imposing Benedict Wong carries a shrewd, menacing presence as Khan, creating unexpected depth within a character who, as written, could easily come off as a despotic caricature. It’s such a shame that the writers seem to imagine his character as some exaggerated warrior version of Jabba the Hutt. As is often the case with such population-dense epics, his performance shows a spark of promise that demands more time than is available, as do those of Uli Latukefu, who plays one of Khan’s sons, and Joan Chen, who plays Khan’s wife.
So replete is Marco Polo with medieval warfare, lopped-off heads, gratuitous nudity, and persnickety period detail, that it pleads longingly to be compared with HBO’s Game of Thrones, a far superior show by almost every measure. Clearly what Netflix hopes you will see is extravagant, prestige entertainment along the lines of such a fantasy epic but, in truth, Marco Polo is closer to one of those cheesy, international adventure movies. There is the potential, though – given some promising early performances, the large budget and the uniquely fascinating source material – for a series that, even if it isn’t thematically deep, could yet be salvaged into good historical popcorn drama.