Netflix is known for some quality original content, including House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and one of my favorites Derek. This newest outing is an effort to branch out to more international interest with something that isn’t focused on the United States, but rather Mongolia in the 1200s. The show reportedly cost around $90 million to make… But is this show worth all that?
The gist. Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy stars as the title character, whom we meet in the first episode as a young man in Venice. His father, who is a worldly traveler and he has never met, comes to town and Marco convinces him to tag along on a trip along the “silk road,” a trading route from Europe through Asia. They arrive in Mongolia and encounter Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), who offers permission for them to trade in his region. As a thank you, Marco’s father abandons him in Mongolia to serve and obey the Khan. And this is where we really begin our tale, as Marco struggles to survive in this harsh and violent world that he doesn’t understand. We meet fascinating characters ranging from Chinese royalty to warriors, peasants, and servants. Will Marco be able to survive his time under the Khan, who is about to wage war on Southern China? Will his father ever return for him?
The story is fascinating, as it’s based on real events but zested up for television. After an epic duel, I looked up the history of Kublai and the story is pretty similar. It’s a glimpse into a time period (and place) that we don’t often see on television. The show has been compared to Game of Thrones, as it does feature a few different parties vying for various positions of power. There’s also some intense violence and plenty of gratuitous nudity (and like Game of Thrones, it sometimes feels unnecessary). I would agree that these shows are similar, though I don’t know if all fans of Thrones would enjoy Marco Polo.
Polo himself (Richelmy) is actually the least interesting character but his supporting cast of friends and enemies is the highlight of the show. Benedict Wong as Kublai is spectacular, managing to play a war-hungry and vicious leader but letting us see past that as he struggles with his family and maintaining his legacy. His son Jinghim (Remy Hii) is also a fascinating character and played wonderfully by Hii. There are certain expectations of a son of the Khan and these complexities are fascinating.
There are also a lot of really great female characters. I wasn’t interested in Zhu Zhu’s Kokachin (or “The Blue Princess”) but about halfway through the season, she becomes more than just an object of Polo’s affection and actually gets some character, so that helped. Another highlight was the Chinese prostitute Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) whose power-hungry brother sends her on a dangerous mission.
While this show does focus on character, allowing a lot of quiet moments, there are also epic and sweeping battles that keep you on the edge of your seat. There are occasional one-on-one fights that have incredible kung fu sequences and the final episode is almost nonstop action.
What doesn’t work?
The first few episodes are very Marco-heavy and tend to be a little harder to get through. I found myself texting or Facebooking instead of watching the show. As it progresses and the supporting characters take focus, the show eventually gets much more interesting.
As the supporting characters grow on you, it becomes more and more apparent than Marco himself is pretty bland. You start to wonder why the Khan even keeps him around. I don’t know if the blame lies on Lorenzo Richelmy or the writing. Polo seems to too easily gain the trust of these people in power and I’m not sure why.
Also it took me some time to get used to everyone speaking English. I kind of wanted authenticity but eventually I got over it.
With only 10 episodes, it’ll take you 3 or 4 to really get into the show. Marco Polo is actually the least interesting character in this adventure, so when the other characters get fleshed out, the show becomes much more fascinating. The story is intriguing and full of great acting talent, with occasional battles to keep you engaged. Is this Netflix’s best show? No. Was it worth the $90 million price tag? Probably not. But it’s a fun adventure and I’m excited for where the show can go next, assuming it gets a second season.