Marco Polo is a fictional historical drama that borrows the identity of the Venetian merchant of the same name. The storylines, particularly in the first season, are told through Marco’s (aka The Latin’s) eyes (played by Lorenzo Richelmy) as he is pressed into the service of Kublai Khan (played by Benedict Wong). In the second season, the adventures and character development tend to gravitate away a little bit from The Latin though he remains a central figure in the season’s plot arc.
What stood out to me the most in this second season were some great sub-plots and the Kung-Fu choreography. It’s probably the best martial art stunt-coordination I have seen in a television serial, ever, period. I love the notion of discipline attached to the study of Kung-Fu and martial arts philosophies in general, which may account for my continued soft-spot for this show and the undeniable magnetism it has over me when I watch it (despite its’ shortcomings and detractors). That said I don’t want to misrepresent that this series is a perfect study in Eastern philosophy, it’s not and in large parts it’s a caricature of that. My biggest criticism of this show is that it’s too scared to go deep enough to make it interesting. I am not sure if they think they will alienate their viewers if they indulge in more detail or if it’s simply a case of trying to get through too much story in too few episodes. Either way, it’s easily the best series of it’s kind since Kung-Fu with David Carradine – even though this may not be an entirely fair comparison either but it definitely seems like that universe has had an influence on the creators and writers of Marco Polo.
Another limitation of the show in general is the pacing. Too frequently the writing is slow or clunky or both. In season two, the Blue Princess Kokachin’s (played by Zhu Zhu) timeline was awfully warped, for example and felt wedged in awkwardly between the main plot points of the season (this was disappointing as the Blue Princess was one of the strongest and most interesting characters in season one). At other times the characters are contradictory with extreme departures from their established convictions or behaviour (including Kublai himself) that it is hard to tell if it is a representation of some underdeveloped internal conflict, or just clumsy. In the redemption column, the presence of powerful female characters that are capable of independent thought as well as developing and following their own agendas leaves a positive, contemporary impression, as does the largely non-anglo cast. The performances of the huge ensemble cast are largely engaging and convincing. Aside from Lorenzo Richelmy, Benedict Wong & Zhu Zhu, who I have already mentioned, other portrayals to highlight are provided by: Mahesh Jadu as Ahmad, Joan Chen as Empress Chabi, Tom Wu as Hundred Eyes, Olivia Cheng as Mei Lin, Chin Han as Jia Sidao and Remy Hii as Jingim. At other times, however at times they suffer from a script that has too much pantomime.
Throughout the series, there’s a lot of violence and nudity. Some of it aimed at women, and while watching it may be uncomfortable at times, it is probably true of the time and shying away from that is in a way denying history (like trying to make a gangster film without smoking and guns). I’d put this show in a pile a fair way below Sopranos, Band of Brothers, etc and somewhere way above Sons of Anarchy or Black Sails. Is that scope too big? Probably. A more direct comparison would be to call it the Eastern version of Vikings. Don’t go in expecting an all out action or a political thriller. It’s something like the popcorn political-action-soap opera. I would like to see these stories written and produced by an Eastern production team with a self-interest in telling a more faithful story.
Final Verdict: do it. It’s a slow burner but it’s easy to get hooked and will kill a weekend on Netflix.
25/12/16 Update: ehonda is bitterly disappointed that Netflix has canned their most original show so sadly MP won’t be back for a third season. Most displeasing.