In the wake of the success of “Game of Thrones” many different studios searched to find their own “Game of Thrones”. These studios aren’t necessarily looking for the next big fantasy epic but just an epic in general. This is quite normal. One thing becomes massive for one studio naturally all the others try to follow in their footsteps. Epics on television existed before “Game of Thrones” (like HBO’s “Rome”) but there was a spike in the wake of “Thrones”. They nearly all have a formula, political intrigue, big set pieces, graphic violence and lots of sex. But, who am I to complain? I enjoy all those things plus if there are more shows like “Game of Thrones” I’ll take it (especially as I wait between seasons). When I first heard about “Marco Polo” I was very excited. A big period piece set in a mostly ignored place in history (by western entertainment) and produced by Netflix; I was completely sold. At a 90 million dollar budget this is one of the biggest series ever produced.
What did the 90 million dollars produce? A series that is beautiful to look at with some of the most impressive set pieces in all of TV. The art design is truly astounding and having this led by a mostly Asian cast is in a sense (in current North American media) a bit ground breaking (even if they aren’t speaking in their native tongues). The performers are well chosen and the action is well choreograph. What didn’t the 90 million dollars produce? Characters and a story that is interesting and engaging. For all this show does right, this does a lot wrong as well. The story is muddled while the characters are as boring as a slab of wood. Getting to the end of the season became a chore.
But, backing up first what is the story? “Marco Polo” is inspired by the true life of the famed explorer during his early years as he is kept under the eye of Kublai Khan. Khan was the Khagan (or Emperor) of the Mongol Empire in his quest to become the leader of the world. As a historical piece, the accuracy isn’t all there. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject there is a measure of certainty (from what little I know) this does take and use its creative license. Which I don’t mean as a direct critique because as a TV series you have to expect that of creative license (even more so than a movie would). The historical background is more inspiration to drive the drama of the show’s story.
It become apparent that the title character is nothing more than a surrogate to transport the audience into this world. He is our guide to all the different character and personalities of this ancient world. In becomes increasingly clear that this isn’t his story, this is more of Khan’s story. Marco is merely a player in the true over arching narrative (Khan would be a cooler show name then Marco Polo as well I might add). I’m sure the real life Marco Polo had lots of interesting stories to tell. This, Marco Polo (played adequately by Lorenzo Richelmy) isn’t given much as a character. The drama between his father isn’t explored and he himself is just a blank slate. Occasionally he feels more like a plot device than an actual character.
So why get involved in the story at all if I have no one to latch onto? Marco is merely nothing more than an RPG character (that’s a video game reference for all non gamer readers) for the audience and there isn’t many other interesting characters either. Nearly all of them drive the politics of the world that is more confusing than it is intricate. The twists I felt like shrugging my shoulders than I felt like saying “woah I didn’t see that coming”. In effect this grand big large series becomes very dull and boring to watch. The character of Khan (played by Benidict Wong) is terrific and memorable. This is one of the few exceptions to a cast of characters that is otherwise empty hollow shells. The characters don’t even have to be likeable just interesting to get me back in to watch it (the character of Hundred Eyes is a good start to this).
And, the pacing of the series is all over the place. It takes a long time for the show to pick up its speed. I found myself (especially through about the first half of the season) wanting to check my phone or look at my watch (or maybe even doing random Math problems on the internet). Yes, this shows can drag. When something exciting happens you are locked back in but slowly you fall out of its spell not long after the scene is finished.
That isn’t to say nothing works in this first season. The action set pieces are extremely well done. The final fight in episode 10 of the series was thrilling (even if I didn’t really care about the players). The directors of the series take an Eastern style of filmmaking to the action where it’s very fluid and taken at a nice wide angle; the action can be seen with ease. There aren’t a lot of close up shots the camera is kept mostly as a mid to wide range.
There is a great amount of potential in this show as it is. The 90 million dollar price tag was certainly a good start and I do intend on watching season 2 (whenever that comes). Simply because the premise itself is intriguing and there are moments here and there where you can see flashes of how good it can be (I also have to say I appreciate the smaller 10 episode season). That being said “Marco Polo” feels like a giant turkey. Large, lumbering and episodes that feel so out of pace. Perhaps there was a reason Starz passed on the project (whom only ended up with a different historical epic “Black Sails” which I also intend on reviewing) and “Marco Polo” could have used more time in the development stages.