The best way to describe Netflix’s original series Marco Polo is with an analogy to Game of Thrones. It’s the same show, only without dragons.
Marco Polo follows the life of the show’s namesake, a Venetian explorer who ends up in the servitude of Kublai Khan, the divine ruler over much of what is now China. The show draws its pointers from history — Marco Polo was indeed a famous explorer who visited Kublai Khan — but Polo’s tale is fictionalized amidst a cast of fantastical characters. Polo is held a captive in Kublai’s court, but soon rises to prominence against the backdrop of Kublai’s war against what little remains of the Chinese Song dynasty.
The appeal of Marco Polo is obvious. Scenes are beautifully shot, as no expense was spared in production. The sight of armies clashing in rambling hills of Mongolia (it was actually shot in Kazakhstan, but let’s just let that slide) or peeking inside the divine Khan’s castle is well worth the price of admission. Throw in copious amounts of (well-choreographed) violence and gratuitous heapings of nudity and you have the makings of a decent drama. By strictly adhering to the GoT model of sex and gore, the floor for Marco Polo is set so high.
Yet, the plotlines in Marco Polo are flimsy and cheap, if not confusing and somewhat meaningless. The problems start with its main character Marco Polo, who simply isn’t very interesting. The camera spends an abundance of time gazing into his soft stare and focusing on his chiseled physique, but there is little character development to speak of. He’s pretty to look at, but that alone isn’t enough to tide you over the course of 12 hour-long episodes. Polo habitually finds himself at the crux of plotlines, even though he is a mere pawn in the grand scheme of Khan’s war against China.
Luckily, the show’s other main character, that being Khan himself, is far more intriguing. Benedict Wong does a masterful job in portraying a conflicted ruler who is often caught between the interests of his family, his kingdom and his legacy. Kublai and his queen give the show nutrients in meaning, elevating Marco Polo beyond a level of visually-stimulating sustenance.
Ultimately, despite its flaws, Marco Polo is worth your time. Come for the sights and try not to think too hard about the convoluted plot, because only the former is worth your time.