Netflix definitely went for ambitious (and expensive) with their new original, streaming series, Marco Polo. The reportedly dumped about $90M into the making of the first season of this show, making it one of the most expensive TV seasons ever made.
Was it worth it?
Sort of. Sometimes. Kind of? Not really.
Marco Polo is absolutely beautiful to look at. There is incredible scenery from the location sets they used, fantastic and elaborate costume design, some cool fighting scenes, and some beautiful women. But for a show to be successful now, it needs to be more than something nice to look at, and Marco Polo fails in a lot of ways as well.
At the end of the day, we are treated to an average television series that is bogged down by poor dialogue and often wooden acting in delivering the mediocre lines. This is a true shame, because the producers should be commended for actually using Asian actors for Asian roles. There are some hidden gems here and there, but overall, the characters don’t provide any depth to themselves, and this leaves us not really caring about any of them, including the eponymous character.
The central story is about Marco Polo, naturally, after he crossed the Silk Road and spent time in the court of the mighty Kublai Khan, one of the greatest rulers in human history. We are provided with some political intrigue, some love story, some misguided stories that don’t really go anywhere, some characters that we can’t even remember their names and care very little about their arc, and some war. I guess the main plot line would be that Kublai wants to conquer a great walled Chinese city that has stood undefeated forever, even stopping his famous grandfather Genghis Khan. This provides us with some entertainment near the end of the season, but not really much else.
Watching Marco Polo, one can’t help but feel that they are watching a poor man’s version of Game of Thrones. Those comparisons are inevitable when you create something on a similar scale and similar in appearance. The main difference is that Game of Thrones has provided viewers with some of the most compelling stories, heroes, and villains on television. Polo definitely fails here, as we care so little for the underdeveloped characters, that we can barely bother with learning to love them or hate them.
A few points from watching the first season:
- Marco himself is quite uninteresting as a central character. Through the series, we have no feelings towards him one way or another. He never comes across as heroic, or even as that important as a bridge between the East and the West.
- Coolest character: the blind martial arts mentor. He is smooth, and has all of the best fight scenes in the entire series.
- I guess the villain would be the chancellor of the walled city? He seemed like a bit of a jerk, but not on a level of hate that one would reserve for a Joffrey Baratheon.
- Nudity. Lots of it. If you want to see attractive women in orgies or just thin, see-through silk, then maybe this series is for you. There are more bare breasts here than you can shake a stick at. But somehow, outside of the Khan’s harem, it felt unnecessary and gratuitous. It takes a lot for me to say that.
- Random story lines. There is a lot going on here that we simply don’t care about, as the secondary stories are often so underdeveloped and random, that you tend to lose focus when they come on the screen. Oh, the story of the assassin girl…guess I’ll catch up on my email. Some episodes are pretty haphazard, but I guess they are posed for another season, where some of the things they have created and set up could come to fruition, hopefully.
- Historical inaccuracies. I don’t want to nitpick on things like this, but there are some things that just don’t work with history.
- Not enough of the good stuff. The empire of the Khan’s are the most massive in history, and created some incredibly interesting things. There should be more about that. Teach us about the culture while you are trying to tell the story of his further dominance. It felt as though this was a huge missed opportunity.
Marco Polo is not a terrible show. It can be quite entertaining at times, even borderline fun. But those moments are too few and far between to make it a complete success. There are some episodes that are plain boring, and much of the intrigue falls flat, mainly because the characters do. After the excitement of the first couple of episodes, and the thrill of getting into a new show, it really slogs along at a pace that doesn’t fit with Netflix. It is probably not a show that you will pour through in a day or two, like so many binge-worthy shows out there.