The dialogue on Marco Polo is about 40 percent actual words and 60 percent grunts, heaves, groans, and moans. Unfortunately, once you actually hear the lines, it’s hard not to root for more uuuurggghhhs. Netflix’s new period drama wants so badly to be like Game of Thrones that it copies a lot of that show’s battle aesthetics and visual panache without seeming to notice the most important part: Game of Thrones is trying to say something. And Marco Polo is literally just saying “urgh.”
Netflix spent a hell of a lot of money on the ten-episode series, and it shows in the wig budget alone. The series looks fantastic, with elaborately decorated palaces full of semi-reflective surfaces and plenty of lively fight sequences. I’d rather watch a “making of” special about Marco Polo than the show itself, though. Tell me about all these shimmery textiles, or the research that went into the calligraphy-lesson scenes, or more about all these fancy horse moves, all of which I care about more than the actual content of the series. There’s a paucity of rich emotions and no real sense of purpose. There’s no nuance or moment of artistry or resonant feeling that’s uniquely Marco Polo. The highlights of the show just remind you of other superior shows and movies.
Polo follows Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) during the years he spent living in China in Kublai Khan’s (Benedict Wong) court, initially as a servant but then as more of an attaché. He learns fighting and horsemanship skills from Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), a blind martial-arts genius. The line “of the yin and the yang, you have an abundance of yang” is bad enough on its own in the first episode, but then Hundred Eyes reminds him about it in fifth episode. (“Remember the dumbest TV line in a really long time, Marco Polo?” “Yes, I do, Hundred Eyes.”) Almost all of Hundred Eyes’s lines are in lifeless koan form. “Do not strive for the center,” he tells Marco during a horseback archery lesson. “Just breathe. With your horse. And your arrow.” While you’re up there breathing with your horse, do you think you could breathe some life into these proceedings? I’m dying down here.
The show never feels like it’s really moving. At times, the story veers off into “and theeeeen” territory without any real reason. If you want to make a show in kaleidoscope vision about tripping balls and having an orgy, more power to you, but it’d be nice if it felt essential to the plot. That dumb orgy is but one among dozens of instances where naked female bodies are scattered around for show, as background decoration. Please, oh mighty TV gods, hear my humble cry: Enough with this. The women in Kublai Khan’s harem apparently conduct all business while totally nude, and when one female character gets a moment to be a dart-throwing, sword-wielding badass, she of course does so completely naked. Women are not wallpaper, even women who live in sexual slavery. I get that male-ruler characters like to collect nameless breast-havers, but the show itself doesn’t have to have the same attitude.
I find the lazy objectification of women irritating, but Marco Polo’s real crime is how boring it is. God damn, this show is boring. There’s a level of detachment in all the characters that prevents any real connection or investment. What will happen to Marco? I … don’t care. Is Kublai sad about something? I don’t care. What about the mysterious princess (Zhu Zhu)? Will she and Marco fall in love? I don’t care. Somehow there’s no one to care about in this entire vast kingdom. At one point, Kublai is showing off some ladle-thingie he says is made out of an elephant’s testicles, and my mind wandered for a solid few minutes, imagining the whole origin of that tool. I forgot completely that I was supposed to be slogging through this show and instead found myself with a daydream kitchen full of scrotal-hewn tools. I’m more invested in the fate of that elephant than I am in the fates of these characters. The show is vacant and uninspiring, so much so that I’d rather fill my imaginary home with ball utensils than watch Marco Polo.