'Marco Polo' leads Netflix into uncharted territory

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
The 10-episode epic 'Marco Polo' is taking Netflix into new territory, where a show can cost tens of millions

Netflix, the home of the highly esteemed "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black," goes epic Friday with the release of the 10-episode period epic "Marco Polo." They spent some money on it.

The series, which embroiders fancifully on the life and times of the 13th century trader and travel writer as he establishes himself in the Chinese court of the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, has been made with an eye to the international market as the company expands globally. (Is there a phrase less propitious to good filmmaking than "international market"?)

That means an emphasis on action, sex and eye candy, with proportionately less investment in nuanced character, ambiguous motivations, interesting language, irony, humor or subtlety of any sort. The tropes are recognizable right out of the box. The clichés come marching in.

Locally, it's also Netflix in a chest-beating "We can do this too!" mood, creating an Asian cousin to cable series like Showtime's "The Borgias" and "The Tudors" and — as every review you will read of this series will note — to HBO's "Game of Thrones," whose dynastic intrigues and medieval setting it mirrors. (Leaving out the dragons.)

Marco's own report, as set down in his "Book of the Marvels of the World," was that he, his father and his uncle were well-received when they arrived at the Khan's court. But this version finds Kublai suspicious and fuming in order to have something more intensely dramatic than the state of trade, the Mongol postal system or the invention of paper money to discuss. (Which is a show I would watch, personally, but which no one is going to spend $90 million to make for me.)

Therefore do the elder Polos quickly take their leave, trading Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy), whom the Khan (Benedict Wong) has deemed clever, for their own safe passage out of there. The abandoned Marco is tossed into a cell, from which he is periodically released for a montage of lessons in horsemanship, falconry, calligraphy.

In martial arts, he is trained by the Yoda of the piece (Tom Wu), a blind master named Hundred Eyes because, though sightless, he, you know, sees all; Marco fails and fails again. But you may be assured that before too many hours have elapsed, he's going to be one lean, mean Venetian merchant (code name: the Latin).

For his part, Kublai wants nothing more than to unite a continent under his rule and get a little peace and a little sleep — he's an insomniac, an affliction over which he and Marco bond. He has been stymied in this project by what remains of the Song Dynasty, holed up in a so-far impregnable city under the control of its chancellor, Jia Sidao (Chin Han), a cultured sociopath in the Bond villain mold who is pimping his sister (Olivia Cheng as Mei Lin), already a royal concubine, for political advantage.

The historical Polo was something of a cipher in his own tale — he was a camera, looking out — and it's not only natural but also necessary to embroider if you're going to make him its focus. Still, the character is a problem.

Historically, Marco Polo entertained Kublai Khan (and centuries of generations of readers) with tales of the cities and people he saw as he traveled the enormous empire in various bureaucratic capacities; in the series, his descriptive powers become very much the point — he's Scheherazade, saved by his words.

The trouble is he's been given none worth saying, and though Richelmy is not a bad actor and is nice enough to look at, he can't make up in charm what the script neglects to give him in dialogue.

It's not as if the rest of the company has it much better. Only Wong's Kublai Khan and Joan Chen — the starriest name here — as his wife, the Empress Chabi, achieve anything that seems like intimacy or parity; it helps that we're to regard them as a long-term and essentially functional couple and also that Chen is such a fine actress. Most seemed trapped within clichés that pass for character, exchanging their prescribed lines and looks but never quite connecting.

As in old biblical epics and every other show on HBO, there is a lot of soft-core sex that, even now, in an age of unavoidable porn, we are supposed to regard as vaguely scandalous. (Khan has a harem, so, you know.) All of the nudity in the six hours I've seen is female — if there was a single bare male backside, I missed it — which may, again, have something to do with the collective tastes of the international market.

Whatever the reason, it feels dated and sad. As if to compensate, the main female characters, including Zhu Zhu as a captive princess and Claudia Kim as a Mongol warrior, have been written to be intelligent and tough.

Some viewers may find it all quite pleasant in its undemanding, familiar way. "Marco Polo" is sumptuous enough — it can be interesting just to look at, with its colorful sets and costumes, exotic locations and physical and digital realizations of a lost civilization.

Creator and show runner John Fusco ("Hidalgo") often makes careful reference to the record; you can almost smell the yellow highlighter coming off some of the lines. Every so often the production does wake up, with a sudden brawl or assassination attempt — these scenes at least have energy and sometimes emotion — before settling back into a state of mildly agitated, interwoven intrigue.


'Marco Polo'

Where: Netflix

When: Anytime, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)

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