I’m a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to popular movies and TV series, so this post is unusually timely. Marco Polo, the new big-budget historical/adventure series made for Netflix, has just premiered on the video giant’s website in the last few weeks, and I watched the first episode last night. So here is my review, from the standpoint of (A) a historian, and (B) a lover of epic historical movies.
Keep in mind that I’ve seen only the first episode of the show, which is called “The Wayfarer.” Ten episodes of the series have been made. It may or may not be fair to judge a whole TV series based on the pilot episode, but television critics do that all the time, so why not?
My initial take is that the new Marco Polo series is Netflix’s entry in what is becoming the “epic TV” sweepstakes, following in the very large and extremely profitable footsteps of Game of Thrones. Indeed from the first shots, which show the bloody aftermath of a medieval siege somewhere in China, Marco Polo visually tries to emulate the look and spirit of Game of Thrones. Throughout the pilot show’s 51 minutes swords clang, bosoms heave and arrogant rulers stare and sneer through clouds of incense shot in lavish soft-focus at magic hour, just like Game of Thrones. Without sounding flip about it, if you’re a huge fan of GoT, you’ll probably find something to like about Marco Polo, though you may not find it as immediately immersing as the blueprint series.
In a nutshell, “The Wayfarer” gets us started on the epic journey of 13th century Italian adventurer Marco Polo (played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy), who inexplicably in the episode’s opening minutes is admitted, together with his father, to the throne room of the mighty ruler Kublai Khan. The Khan is not impressed with the Venetians’ gift of oil and says he wants the Pope to come to Mongolia to swear fealty to him personally. (Yeah, right. I’m sure he’ll be right over). After some epic-sounding pronouncements, the senior Polo gives up his son, who’s about 20, to the Khan’s service. I was hoping they would take the opportunity to zoom in on Marco’s face, with nostrils twitching, as he shouts “KHAAAAAAAANNN!!!!” into the camera; but alas, Marco accepts his fate, and winds up getting trained by a blind martial arts expert and then browsing through the Khan’s crimson-lit brothel chamber while his (the Khan’s) men launch an attack against the walled Chinese city that stands between them and Kublai’s domination of China.
There are also some confusing flashbacks to Marco’s origin back in Venice. They’re very beautiful and well-shot, but it’s difficult to tell what the backstory is, and the relationship between Marco and his father is not well fleshed-out. This is unfortunately a hallmark of Marco Polo–the show doesn’t try too hard to make anything clear, such as who is doing what to whom, or why, or what role Marco has in any of it. I found the brothel scene especially confusing. It seems mostly to have been a boondoggle to show boobs and butts. At one point there’s even a jade dildo. Yes, you read that right. A jade dildo. There’s a lot of sex in this episode, as there is in Game of Thrones; this is (and I’m not at all complaining) a hallmark of the “epic TV” genre of the 2010s.
As history, “The Wayfarer” is very muddled. In one sense this isn’t the show’s fault. Almost everything we know about the real Marco Polo and his travels has been disputed by historians at one time or another, with some even claiming that he never actually went there, but merely wrote down stories he heard from others who crossed the Silk Road in the 13th and early 14th centuries. I think he did go, but the trade and cultural relationships between Venice and the Mongols were far more complicated than represented here. There’s no mention, for instance, of the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261 (it had been ruled by Western Europeans–“Latins”–since the Fourth Crusade of 1204), which was a major impetus for Niccolo Polo, Marco’s father, to seek direct commercial links with China. Maybe the audience doesn’t need to know this, but it would have been nice.
As a dramatic presentation, Marco Polo reminds me of nothing so much as a modern re-do of those “epic” historic miniseries that were ubiquitous on TV in the 1980s. You know the ones: Shogun (the gold standard of that sort of thing), Thorn Birds, North and South, and, oh yeah, Marco Polo, which was broadcast on NBC in 1982 and starred Kenneth Marshall, who later turned up on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, as the title character. These shows had as many clanging swords, epic battles and heaving bosoms as TV budgets and censors would allow. We’re in a new era where massive armies can be created by CGI effects and there’s no limit on the T&A you can show on Netflix, so the producers can be forgiven for going hog wild.
In the new Netflix series, Marco Polo seems more defined by the 1980s than the 1280s.
There’s a distinctly ’80s feel to the new Marco Polo. It came through most strongly during the martial arts training scenes, which despite the Matrix/House of Flying Daggers-style slo-mo effects of midair jump kicks and falling coins, is right out of a Rocky or Karate Kid sequel. All we needed was Peter Cetera or Europe to be playing on the soundtrack. Maybe the Mongols’ haircuts are historically accurate–I just don’t know–but the mop-top mohawk Kublai Khan sports is right out of The Road Warrior. I could see a series like this showing on Cinemax late at night in about 1988 (though even “Skinemax” would probably draw the line at a jade dildo). Thus, retro nostalgia seems to be a selling point of the show.
Overall I found “The Wayfarer” modestly enjoyable but not brilliant, with a shadow of historical truth rather than a strong commitment to it. Will I re-enlist for another episode? It’s probably worth that investment of time, but if we’re not out of Cinemax-in-1988 territory by episode three, Signore Polo may have to continue his epic sojourn in China without me. After all, we’ll soon have new Mad Men and House of Cards to catch up on, and I’m way behind on Game of Thrones.