Netflix has a lot to prove. It doesn’t always seem that way, given the content-streaming giant’s global subscriber base of roughly 53 million and a programming slate anchored by the rabidly followed House Of Cards and Orange Is The New Black. But Netflix is at a pivotal, precarious point in its history, between recent slumps in its stock price, tepid subscription growth, and an awkward prominence in the increasingly partisan net-neutrality debate. Netflix may represent the future of television, but like any network, it’s an unsteady tent searching for a pole.
If Marco Polo, Netflix’s profligate epic drama, premiered anywhere else, it would be judged strictly on its artistic merits. With Netflix as its home, Marco Polo is nearly impossible to extricate from the underlying corporate narrative. Polo is so replete with medieval warfare, lopped-off heads, gratuitous nudity, and persnickety period detail, it pleads to be compared with HBO’s Game Of Thrones, a far superior show by nearly every measure. And if the show is Netflix’s latest offensive against HBO, its biggest rival, it portends a war in which the streaming service is the House Stark to the cable network’s House Lannister.
Lorenzo Richelmy stars as Polo, the son of Venetian merchants who forges a complex, mercurial relationship with ruthless Mongol monarch Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). The series traces the silhouette of Polo’s fanciful account of his travels, flitting between the present and the past, European and Asian locales, showing Polo’s treks along the Silk Road and his integration into Khan’s Yuan dynasty. The most intent focus of that account is the adventurer’s service to Khan, after being sold to the ruler by his father, Niccolò (Pierfrancesco Favino).
Polo’s tenure under Khan is dreadfully dull in its down beats, and the rest of the time the show hops from one set piece to the next, resulting in a spasmodic rhythm that makes it difficult to settle into, let alone binge on. Polo also feels unserious despite its roots in actual events. The semi-historical basis should lend gravitas, but creator John Fusco goes to such lengths to tart up Polo’s adventures, there’s too much pay-cable brio for the show to feel grounded. Narrative liberties with historical events are fair play, but given that the source material was probably embellished as it is, sequences like one in which a fully nude woman neutralizes three armed attackers gild the lily.
Richelmy, a virtual unknown Stateside, is a rakish cipher on his own, but an intriguing symbiosis takes place when the star is playing off Wong, as if the characters’ nuanced relationship dynamics seeped into the actors’ professional rapport. Wong carries a shrewd, menacing presence as Khan, creating unexpected depth within a character who, as written, could easily come off as a despotic caricature. But as is often the case with population-dense epics, some performances show a spark of promise that demands more time than is available, as is the case with Uli Latukefu, who plays one of Khan’s sons, and Joan Chen, who plays Khan’s wife.
To its credit, Polo’s visuals are as beautiful, expansive, and lush as one would expect from a 10-episode season produced for $90 million. It’s a perfect fit for pilot directors and Kon-Tiki collaborators Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who made the most of on-location shoots in Malaysia, Italy, and Kazakhstan. No viewer can resist a panoramic battle scene, especially when staged on verdant rises that stretch to the horizon, and that’s precisely the type of grandeur at which Rønning and Sandberg excel. Polo has another sure directorial hand in Daniel Minahan, a five-time Game Of Thrones director who so accurately mimics that show’s aesthetic, the result borders on theft of trade secrets.
The Marco Polo production team and the Netflix top brass have bristled at the notion that the show borrows too much from Game Of Thrones, but despite the protestations, the final product veers far too close for comfort. It’s a perfectly valid strategy for Netflix to add a Game Of Thrones-like show to its roster, especially one with as much international appeal as Marco Polo. But Marco Polo doesn’t stack up to the political maneuverings and bloody battles within the Seven Kingdoms, and so often resembles George R.R. Martin fan-fiction, it seems wiser to revisit the superior show. As HBO prepares to facilitate Westerosi binges with a stand-alone HBO Go app, Netflix could wind up taking a beating if the pay-cable network is better at cribbing from the streaming notebook than Netflix is at making not-TV.