Despite its sumptuous displays of feudal opulence — cavalries, silk gowns, all the naked female extras money can buy — Netflix’s Marco Polo feels distinctly like scraps. Turgid, fatuous, and humorless, the streaming site’s newest series is a grave miscalculation of what has made Game of Thrones, its obvious model, such a TV phenomenon. Marco Polo borrows from the HBO institution its most sensationalistic and/or problematic qualities — its unforgiving violence, aggressive male gaze, exoticizing of non-Western cultures — while neglecting the nuts and bolts that make Thrones great: its urgent plotting, vivid characterizations, and meticulous world-building.
On paper, Marco Polo held enormous promise: a reported $90 million budget for its 10-episode debut season (significantly more than the $60 million HBO spent on Game of Thrones‘ first year); an audience already primed for some light homework to keep up with intricate royal intrigue involving faraway lands and unusual names; and well-known historical personages (brand familiarity!) whose stories have rarely been told in mainstream media, thus avoiding remake fatigue.
And even its iffy Last Samurai-esque white-guy-in-Asia premise shouldn’t be an immediate deal-breaker. Netflix’s best series to date, Orange Is the New Black, boasts some of the small screen’s most fully realized characters of color — all of whom owe their existence to the dramedy’s white protagonist and creator Jenji Kohan’s “Trojan horse” strategy.
In some respects, Kohan’s plan worked too well. The blonde, upper-middle-class Piper (Taylor Schilling), our entrée into Litchfield Penitentiary, has been deemed by many fans to be the show’s least interesting character, even an entirely disposable presence. Marco Polo shares with OITNB a white audience-identification character who isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with charisma, wit, or heroism. The problem with the 12th-century Mongolia-set epic, though, is that none of the other characters make up for Marco’s bland hunkiness.
Marco Polo‘s problems start pretty much straightaway. (I’ve seen the first four episodes.) In the pilot, the young Venetian merchant (played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy) is offered up to Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) — “the richest, most powerful king on the face of this earth” — by Papa Polo. Marco is then called a slave, a servant, and a prisoner by the rest of the court, but one who receives lessons in kung fu, calligraphy, horseback riding, and falconry. It’s unclear where the European adventurer stands in the khan’s imperial hierarchy, and the series doesn’t seem all that interested in figuring it out, thus forgoing the necessary pilot storyline of almost every show in which the fish-out-of-water protagonist finds their place in a new world. Marco’s purgatorial statuslessness makes even less sense given that he’s the main character of a court drama, a genre based entirely on jockeying for position and power.
To be sure, creator John Fusco ensures that Marco is only a (station-less) cog in a vast imperial machine. The khan is cosmopolitan enough to recognize that the outsider’s perspective that Marco offers can be valuable, but rarely consults him about the issue foremost on his mind: when and how to invade the failing Song Dynasty, now established in southern China. Led by a boy king after the death of the elderly emperor, the Chinese court is under threat of an internal coup from the ambitious prime minister Sidao (Chin Han), who sends his newly widowed (and apparent sex-genius) sister Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) to join the khan’s harem and become one of his concubines, or at least his bedside confidante. Mei Lin’s arrival in the khan’s bed arouses the suspicions and jealousies of the khan’s most prized wife, Chabi (Joan Chen). Meanwhile, the khan argues with his resentful adult son Jingim (Remy Hii) about adopting Mongolian versus Chinese culture, but because it’s never explained what those cultures mean, other than that the Mongolians consider themselves slightly more butch than their enemies, none of these conversations actually offer much insight into the characters.
Marco Polo certainly boasts a wide canvas, but it’s actually not much more than a chessboard. The players are frustratingly plastic, with only the next move in mind, and so joyless and fancifully cruel that most of the characters can’t help being read as stereotypes of evil Oriental mustache-twirlers. The khan orders the execution of a horse-robber, shruggingly explaining to Marco that the poor man must give up his life if he doesn’t have any horses or offspring with which to compensate the victim. And in the most gruesome scene in the first four episodes, Sidao breaks the foot bones of his dance-loving young niece with his bare hands, promising her that this ruthless maiming will make her more beautiful, when he’s really just preparing her to be sold off as a royal hostage.
Then there are the out-and-out groan-worthy characters, seen in a thousand-and-one other movies, like the calmly abusive kung fu master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) and the Mongolian princess, Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), who’s inexplicably making googly eyes at Marco because, well, every captured white explorer is irresistible to ethnic princesses. (It’s science.) Sorely lacking on the show is any semblance of a sense of humor, and it’s hard not to wonder if this is the case because there are no stereotypes about Asians being funny. Even if there were jokes, they might not be heard, for the mostly American, Canadian, and British actors of Asian descent who make up the cast speak in a peculiar and highly varying accent that’s not only distracting but mutilates their enunciation. Not afforded the gift of gab, of course, are the dozens of female bodies in the harem scenes, writhing in perpetual lesbian orgies. (You know you’re fit for the khan when you don’t ever need to take a water break.)
Shot in Italy, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia, Marco Polo offers plenty of landscape porn and splendid production design, from the Empress’s elaborate hair ornaments to the blue-green-gray latticework behind the khan’s throne, which allows him to see his subjects much better than they can see him. The actual people involved, though, aren’t afforded nearly such detailed consideration. Say what you will about Game of Thrones, but at least the show makes you care when it’s casually slaughtering its characters. But nobody bats an eye when you’re just shredding cardboard.