Netflix has a lot riding on Marco Polo, their newest original series that launched in the middle of December. Its outlandish budget – second only to Game of Thrones in television history – set up something of an unfair expectation going into the show’s first season. Which is to say: Game of Thrones this ain’t. But that’s okay; that’s a good thing. Netflix’s offering isn’t as politically astute as HBO’s, or dramatically competent for that matter, but there’s something to be said for its sheer ferocious attempt at trying to be.
The show, created by John Fusco, focuses on the events of a young Marco Polo, who finds himself deserted by his adventurer father at the court of Kublai Khan. Marco, having just met his father – who travels far and wide to attempt to make a name for his family – decides to stow away on a journey with his dear old dad and uncle as they undertake a gruelling three year journey to the Silk Road and the Mongolian Empire at the end of it. Shenanigans ensue, and after a trading mishap, Marco is left behind as collateral of sorts while his father and uncle leave so they can attempt to return to the Khan’s good side.
The show’s pilot, amongst other problems like overabundant flashbacks and general lackadaisical pacing, finds a big issue in setting up the series to be something it turns out not to be. That is, what initially seems like a pseudo-spy show – Marco infiltrating the Khan’s court, befriending people who he’ll inevitably have to betray – becomes more of like Stockholm-syndrome. For the entire ten-episode run, Marco’s on Kublai’s good side far more than his bad, and though a few periphery characters question his loyalty, it’s never really up in the air for the viewer.
It bears repeated comparison, but a show like Game of Thrones, with characters and houses in constant and ever-present feud, leave viewers in a state of giddy turmoil over discovering who’ll end up on top in the end. A show like Marco Polo – and, you know, literally called Marco Polo – doesn’t leave much to the imagination over which side will probably be victorious.
Marco Polo‘s first few hours as a whole don’t really shed the series in the best light. Besides befuddling character names, a confusing set-up to the season-long war between Kublai and Jia Sidao, chancellor of the walled city of Xiangyang (keeping up?), the general pace of the first few hours of the show’s life is a shuffling, perfunctory sluggishness that doesn’t quite elicit excitement. There are notable exceptions: Mei Lin, sister of Jia Sidao, gets an early fight scene against a group of baddies, oh and she’s completely nude the entire time; and a political scuffle between the Khan and his brother not only ends in the show’s first hint at its broad, epic-battle scope, but with teases of how good Benedict Wong will be as Kublai Khan.