“I once drowned my own dog when it would not stop killing sheep. Is that not compassion?”
Season 2, Episode 1 – Hunter and the Sable Weaver
Upon publishing this review, Marco Polo is standing on unsure ground. Despite Season 2 being available on Netflix for a little over three months, news has yet to arrive whether or not a third season has been ordered. The show has been overlooked by audiences even during its first season, which isn’t surprising because Marco Polo stands in the shadows of other big budget, prestigious dramas in the same genre. In a time where standing out is becoming ever more important for content providers, Marco Polo seems to constantly get lost in the background.
Marco Polo has the unenviable task of convincing Western audiences to embrace a historical drama which boasts an almost all-Asian cast. In many ways, the concept of the series is a compromise right from the start: despite its title, the show isn’t really about Marco Polo. The real lead character and focus of the series is Kublai Kahn, played by the imposing Benedict Wong. The main narrative of the entire series is driven by Kublai Kahn and his actions, with Marco Polo simply reacting to the situation that surrounds him.
And maybe that’s why Marco Polo has trouble standing out. Not just because it flip-flops between who the main character is, but because neither of the characters are interesting enough for audiences to be invested in. Kublai Kahn is too powerful to be intriguing. Marco Polo is too reactionary to be compelling. The supporting characters, unfortunately, don’t fare any better. Mei Lin and Hundred Eyes are probably two of the most interesting characters in the show (with the latter even getting his own special origin episode), but like Marco Polo, they simply react to the events that surround them instead of driving the narrative.
There’s a reason why this genre tends to feature a big ensemble cast, each of whom tend to carry their own storylines that impact the bigger picture. Putting the spotlight on just one or two characters narrows down the plot too much, resulting in repetitive or uninteresting story arcs. There’s only so many betrayals, conspiracy, and plotting that a show can do before it grows stale, especially in a series that doesn’t exactly have the freedom to make game-changing plot developments. This is the main problem of Marco Polo. The show is rife with intrigue and conflict and action, but it ultimately seems simplistic at the end of the day.
It kind of makes one think why this is the story that Netflix decided to greenlight when the storylines seem fairly standard. Or at least, the writers haven’t done anything with the backdrop to make it more interesting than it is. Most of the supporting characters are already fictional, and creator Jon Fusco even described his own show as “historical fiction,” but it seems that Marco Polo is having great difficulty creating compelling drama despite this freedom.
Still, there are a lot of things that Marco Polo excels at. It’s easily one of the most beautiful-looking TV series currently on air. The cinematography, production design, and costumes are top-notch. We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing historical dramas set in the West, and they all tend to look very familiar, but Marco Polo’s historical Asian setting brings with it a refreshing look and design that results in bountiful eye candy. Benedict Wong excellently portrays Kublai Kahn’s intimidating presence and kingly attributes despite having to overcome the material he’s given.
Still, these positives aren’t enough to make Marco Polo must-watch television. It’s definitely not as complex as other prestigious dramas in the same genre, even though Marco Polo so desperately wants to see itself as one of them. It provides decent enough entertainment to kill some time, and the addition of Michelle Yeoh in the second season has grabbed my attention, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to dedicate the time and patience to follow this show. Of course, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. This show is doing just fine making sure that you never pay attention to its existence.