The Netflix original series Marco Polo premiered on December 12th to mostly negative reviews. Here is why you should ignore them and give it a try.
The original reviews were based on advanced screenings of the first few episodes. If the critic did not enjoy the premiere (and many did not) they based the entire review off this single bias.
That is not to say they were entirely wrong. The show had a stuttering start. After watching the show through twice I can honestly say the premiere is by far the weakest episode. It begins with our hero, Marco as he travels with his cold father and deceitful uncle along the silk-road to the court of Kublai Khan. The main storyline follows the trials of Marco Polo as he is placed, by his own hand and others, into increasingly precarious situations.
As to not spoil the major twists, Marco ends up in the service of the great Khan not through his own volition. Gifted with a sharp mind and a silver tongue, Marco has to dodge death right from the outset. Kublai is intrigued by the young Italian and gives him a place at his court. He is to describe to the Khan in all honestly what he sees, with his own eyes, in his own words.
The portrayal of the title character falls to Lorenzo Richelmy, who offers up Marco as a naïve, quick witted and in a perpetual state of culture shock. The performance is good but often inconsistent, especially when contrasted with his co-stars. You are often left feeling even-keeled when the scene would scream for more or less emotion. Lorenzo, much like the show, gets better with each passing episode.
There are also a myriad of interwoven plots. The most notable deals with Kublai Khan, and his obsession with conquering all of Southern China. Specifically the city of Xiangyang, the final holdout of the Song Dynasty. The great Khan is often seen speaking to a statue of Genghis asking him for guidance while cursing him at the same time.
The role of Kublai Khan falls to Bendict Wong. To say he steals every scene would be like saying Genghis Khan was a minor warlord. This is the star of the show and he carries every scene he is in. Wong put on weight for this role and did his research. You will believe he is the great Khan come again.
Every character has a story and a purpose. They don’t just appear to be quickly killed off. This is one of the strengths of the show. Other stand out performances must be mentioned, specifically; Remy Hii as Prince Jingam; Zhu Zhu as the beautiful Kokachin, Tom Wu as the blind kung Fu master, Hundred Eyes; Chin Han plays the main antagonist, Jia Sidao and Olivia Cheng plays the deadly concubine Mei Lin.
All these plots, characters, court intrigue and betrayals lead up to the season finale which has one of the best battle scenes on television. The great Khan vs the impenetrable wall of Xiangyang and its sociopathic ruler, Jia Sidao.
The show is not a historical re-enactment of the voyages of Marco Polo. Viewers hoping for a documentary style show will be disappointed. The show is a work of historical fiction. The fighting is more akin to 1970’s Kung Fu movies than actual sword play and there is a lot of sex. The obvious comparison for this show would be the highly successful Game of Thrones. It seems the writers were not sure what the tone of the show should be, so they began with a lot of gratuitous sex and violence. This evens out as the show finds it footing.
There are also inconsistencies in the actual history. The fight between Kublai and his brother Ariq is the best example. However, special attention was given to the armour of both the Mongols and Chinese. The way the soldiers looked and acted is genuine. The cities of Karakorum, Khanbaliq and Xiangyang are exquisite.
The visuals on this show are top notch. You will beg for more panoramic shots of the landscape. It really offers you a scope of how vast and alien the kingdom of Kublai might have seemed to a young European explorer.
I need to cover the negatives of the show, as they seem to be thrown about a lot. I mentioned the slow start but beyond that the shows biggest issue is pace and identity. The show is trying very hard to be both like Game of Thrones and apart from it. Instead of doing this, they should just focus on telling their story and stop with the silly sex scenes, nude assassination attempts and another angry young prince. Are all medieval princes evil? The relationship between Marco and the blue princess is odd and really doesn’t hit an emotional cord, or hasn’t yet. The actress Zhu Zhu does a fantastic job of selling it regardless.
Kublai Khan and the Mongols is why the show has survived. Anytime they are the focus, the show does well. Let’s be honest, there is no other program like this on television nor has there been for a long time. Marco Polo is about a culture that many people have no understanding or exposure too. They cast an Italian actor as an Italian historical figure. They cast Asian actors as Asian historical figures. Just for that, they deserve acknowledgement. You won’t find waxed, perfect teeth and no scars English actors playing Greek warriors here. The Mongols look like Mongols. The Mongols act like Mongols and when the Mongols attack, you feel for whatever is in their way.
This is not the best show on television but it is far from the worst. This is a show much like the people it portrays. It is a show that is constantly moving, adapting, conquering. The negativity surrounding it is baffling and unfair. It deserves a second season.
Give it four episodes and judge for yourself.