Created by John Fusco, Netflix’s newest entry in its reinvention of television aims to be a grand historical epic, but is too caught up in borrowing from other works to find its own voice. The math is simple: “Game of Thrones,” minus that show’s richly developed world and fantastical elements, plus some kung fu movie pastiche and even more female nudity. (Yes, more female nudity than “Game of Thrones” is possible, it turns out.)
All this in the name of telling the story of famed explorer Marco Polo, who as played by Lorenzo Richelmy is a well-meaning but somewhat bland minor character in his own story, who rarely feels essential to the political battles and literal battles being waged in 13th century China.
Calling Richelmy the star of this show is technically true, but it’s really the characters of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) and Jia Sidao (Chin Han) who command real attention. And it is genuinely great to see Benedict Wong (a British actor whose work has largely been limited to supporting roles in bigger projects, such as Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine” and Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” rule so effortlessly over scenes as Khan. Beneath the beard, hairpiece and elaborate costuming, he’s still able to bring out the commanding soul of the character.
Han (perhaps most recognizable as the Hong Kong accountant in “The Dark Knight”) is also a force as the influential Chinese chancellor, and in later episodes the brotherly friendship between Khan’s sons Jingim (Remy Hii) and Ahmad (Mahesh Jadu) brings some genuine humanity to the series. (Decider has a helpful character guide, if you’re struggling to keep the relationships straight.)
But in the episodes screened, there’s not a single female character who pushes beyond trope — regal Joan Chen, as Empress Chabi, spends the majority of her time focused on Khan’s concubines, while one-time concubine to the Chinese emperor Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) doesn’t get much personality beyond loving her daughter and being manipulated by her brother, and even the tough and strong Khutulun (Claudia Kim), who wrestles with glee amongst her fellow Mongols, is quickly reduced to another love interest for Marco.
Sure, “Game of Thrones” might not be above the occasional whorehouse scene, but it’s also a show rich with a diverse array of strong, intriguing female characters, some of whom kick serious ass. Kung fu isn’t strictly limited to the men of “Marco Polo,” but when women dip into the action, they tend to do so either fully nude or right before or after a sex scene. There are hints that the women of the show might be able to develop beyond the cliches they’re trapped in, especially in Episode 6. But it’s a long and naked road to that end.
Comparing one show to another may not be the most fair thing, but the question of whether “Marco Polo” is Netflix’s “Game of Thrones” is so saturated in the narrative of the show that it becomes hard to avoid. (We at Indiewire definitely asked the question after seeing a trailer.) And in case it wasn’t clear, “Marco Polo” is on a technical level as well-made as “Thrones,” but otherwise definitely suffers both by comparison and on its own merits.
Netflix, for the record, has not been infalliable in the past. “Hemlock Grove” remains a very particular flavor of weird for most viewers, “Lilyhammer” has its fans but can’t ever seem to get any real traction, and “Arrested Development” Season 4, while a bold experiment in storytelling, did more to alienate old fans than bring in new ones.
But “House of Cards” has taken advantage of its creative freedom to dig into the quirks of politics and human sexuality. “Orange is the New Black” has become one of television’s most powerful celebrations of diversity, across all possible planes. And “Bojack Horseman” hid its delicate dramedy heart beneath the trappings of a raunchy animated comedy. So much of what has come before from Netflix has at least felt inspired on some level.
And the best part, it always seemed, was that these programming decisions weren’t driven primarily by studio executive whims — instead, Netflix would pick up shows based on what they’d seen performing well, algorithm-wise. “The Killing” has fans on Netflix? Netflix helps produce a new season of “The Killing.” Bill Burr’s comedy specials do well? Bill Burr gets his own series.
So when I first sat down to watch “Marco Polo,” I admit that it just didn’t make any sense to me. Why had Netflix spent $90 million to make a series that looked pretty good, but didn’t seem at all challenging or groundbreaking on the level of past shows? Things cleared up, though, when I found out the show had originally been developed as a series for Starz — perhaps the biggest problem with “Marco Polo” is that thanks to its Starz DNA, it can’t escape a decidedly old school feel, and thus has no place in the television revolution that Netflix, up until this very moment, had been leading.
(I’ll also say that even Starz has shown more originality and spunk recently: Take “Outlander,” which in its first half-season became a rallying point for viewers interested in seeing a bold, open take on female sexuality — not to mention a pretty blatant reversal on the male gaze, never hesitating to objectify young Scotsmen above and beyond the story’s demands.)
Perhaps the most dated element of “Marco Polo” is the fundamental concept of the court of Kublai Khan as seen through the eyes of a Westerner: In a recent interview with Indiewire’s own Ben Travers, Fusco honest-to-God referred to the setting of his show, the home of 99 percent of its characters, as “an alien empire” that we would only be able to understand thanks to the perspective of its white male protagonist.
But there’s no shortage of story material in this time period; researching some of the real history behind the characters depicted was fascinating. So it might be wishful thinking on the part of this reviewer, to imagine a version of “Marco Polo” made for the same budget, with the same cast — but without relying on this outside-looking-in approach. Maybe Marco is there watching, taking notes on the sidelines for his famous future memoirs, but the real stars are the actual men and women driving the events of history. Because the fact is, a Western perspective on a foreign culture is no longer that interesting in a media environment when diverse voices are finally, finally getting a chance to break through. And it’s definitely not all that innovative or groundbreaking.
We’ve learned in the past to give Netflix shows a chance beyond the first several episodes, and the fact is that it’s not unwatchable. Some bits were amusing. Some bits were shocking. And maybe, in the back half, it might start to elicit a different reaction. But it’s definite a gamble, and that initial feeling of disappointment is always hard to overcome.