I had high hopes for Netflix’s new period drama Marco Polo. With a $90 million dollar budget—making it the second-most expensive show on TV behind only Game of Thrones—and being co-produced by The Weinstein Company, the table was set for something interesting, maybe even special. I sat down to watch the first six episodes, prepared to lose a day’s productivity in order to consume all available episodes, and just…wasn’t blown away.
Comparisons to Game of Thrones are inevitable, given the scale of the project, the politically-driven plot, and the amount of blood and sex on display. But I found myself thinking more about Netflix’s other political drama, House of Cards. That show can be uneven, but it’s driven by two things: 1) Utterly compelling performances, and 2) a serpentine plot that keeps you guessing as to what could possibly happen next. Marco Polo lacks those two things, so even though there is some really great action and beautiful production design, the show never reaches “binge worthy” levels. It’s worth watching, you’re just not going to wreck your weekend plans in order to finish it all at once.
The show centers on a young Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant who earned a place in history by writing a highly entertaining—and detailed—account of his travels through Asia and the Middle East in the thirteenth century. The history in Marco Polo is squiffy around the edges, but it is true that Polo’s father essentially abandoned him in the court of Kublai Khan as hostage to ensure safe trade routes. Marco Polo centers on this time, when Polo as a young man is left on his own in the exotic and dangerous court of the Khan.
There is enough good in Marco Polo to justify watching it, if not burning through all ten episodes at once. Benedict Wong is tremendously charismatic as Kublai Khan, and Chin Han plays the wonderfully daffy Jia Sidao, the Chancellor of the Song Dynasty. I’m obsessed with this guy—he takes all his cues from a praying mantis. Seriously, he puts a praying mantis in a bowl, pokes it with a stick, and then decides what to do next. Sometimes, another guy comes over with his praying mantis, they put BOTH mantes in the bowl and poke them BOTH with sticks. Is the mantis telling the future?! I loved this for its sheer weirdness—the show could use more touches like this.
And the female cast is terrific. I got bored with Polo, played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, almost immediately and wished he and the many quarreling princes and ministers would just get out of the way of the much more interesting women, particularly Olivia Cheng as the concubine Mei Lin. Banished by her creepy bug-worshipping brother after the old Song emperor dies, Mei Lin is sent to Kublai Khan’s court as an outcast in order to spy. She’s ten times more intriguing than Polo. While Joan Chen is great as Empress Chabi, Kublai Khan’s bloodthirsty wife, Cheng is the standout.
But Marco Polo is our entrée into this world, the wide-eyed European who knows nothing about Asian life or politics and so provides a convenient target for exposition. The problem is, he’s not very interesting. To their credit, the writers do set up Polo as a storyteller who charms the mercurial Kublai Khan with his ability to talk—shades of Scheherazade—and he is shown to be someone who is surviving by his wits and ability to entertain the Khan. But Richelmy is too slight a presence to really register. He looks like a baby Khal Drogo, so he might appeal to some, but he was by far the least engaging part of the series.
The writing is also not particularly good. It’s not just bouts of stilted dialogue—though there is that, too—it’s that show lacks the urgency and surprise that makes House of Cards so compelling. This is an historically rich period, right at the moment when the Mongolians conquered China by defeating the Song Dynasty, but too many battles happen off-screen and the political maneuvering puts too much emphasis on horses not showing up in a certain place and not enough on the reasons why one person would want to screw over another. It makes the conflicts feel impersonal and, ultimately, unimportant.
Along the same lines, the inevitable romantic plot between Polo and a princess seems driven more by expectation than any real chemistry between the characters. If the show was about Mei Lin, a legendary concubine with secret Kung Fu skills who must survive in the court of her enemy by only her wits and sexual prowess, it might have been everything Netflix and its big-ass budget intended. As is, though, the show tends to be as drippy and vague as Marco Polo himself.