Posted by: markfender | December 23, 2014

Marco Polo

When I first heard that Netflix was doing a Marco Polo series (a week before it started airing), I immediately thought it could be pretty cool. Boy, was I wrong.

Marco_Polo_2014_title_cardHistorical epics are big right now, but only a certain type of historical epic. Of course, I blame the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mud, blood, and tits abound in the modern historical epic and Marco Polo doesn’t veer from this formula. The first scene is of bodies spiked on poles. There’s an entirely nude fight scene (and not a good one like Eastern Promises. In this case, the woman disrobes and then kills a bunch of dudes. Why did she disrobe? It didn’t make any sense). It’s just aping Game of Thrones and, as I’ve stated numerous times in the past, Game of Thrones isn’t even that good.

But, the scenery is gorgeous, the costuming is elaborate, and the diverse cast does an admirable job. Benedict Wong is great as Kublai Khan and Joan Chen is his equally worthy queen. Chin Han is also great as Jia Sidao. Sadly, the main character is terrible. I wouldn’t lay the blame entirely at Lorenzo Richelmy’s feet (but he’s definitely partially responsible). The writers never seem to know what to do with him. Despite numerous sub-plots thrust his way, Marco Polo manages to provide no impetus for caring about any of them. Is it the wooden response of Richelmy that kills it, or just terrible plotting? I’m inclined to split the difference.

Kublai Khan’s court is filled with characters you’ve already seen on Game of Thrones. Okay, granted, medieval court positions were medieval court positions and so it totally makes sense that there’d be a Minister of Finance in both series. But is there any reason that he has to be a wily schemer like Littlefinger? Must the court bastard have a love affair with a wilding girl? Seriously, it’s not even subtle how badly they are trying to replicate Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones managed to win an audience by telling a good story (or, at least, telling a good story badly). It’s based on a series of books by a generally good author. Even when the show goes out of its way to ruin Martin’s writing, the original story still shines through enough to keep audiences invested. So, why doesn’t Marco Polo manage to do this? This series should have been based on Gary Jenning’s 1984 novel The Journeyer. In that book, Jennings writes a highly fictionalized historical epic about Marco Polo, complete with all the blood and boobs a modern television epic needs. It’s the perfect source material for this kind of show, and yet it was abandoned in favor of slow-motion martial arts.

Okay, the martial arts are pretty well done. There’s a bit too slo-mo in some of the fights, but the rest is pretty well done. But I will never understand why martial arts replace common sense in these scenarios. Example the first: Kublai has a wayward brother. Their respective Mongol hordes advance upon each other to do battle to determine who is worthy of ruling. The entire thing is decided by a duel between Kublai and his brother. Why did you mobilize your army? You just wasted a whole hell of a lot of resources. You’re a bad emperor. Example the second: the walls of the holdout city are destroyed. Mongols are raiding the town. But the evil Chancellor doesn’t surrender until he’s had a kick-ass martial arts fight. Dude, it’s too late for your martial arts acumen to make a difference. You’re a bad chancellor.

Perhaps the worst thing about the series is how the white man saves the yellow people. I mean, thank God Marco Polo was there to introduce catapult technology to the Mongol Empire so that they could knock those walls down. What ever would they have done if the white man hadn’t graced them with his superior intellect? This plot annoyed me on so many levels. There’s the aforementioned racism, of course, but there’s also the missed opportunity to make Marco Polo an actually important fixture in Kublai’s court. Throughout the series, Kublai has sought out Marco Polo for his descriptions of events Kublai can’t witness. Marco is eloquent and paints a mean word picture. This is supposed to be endearing to Kublai. So, when Marco is sentenced to die, why doesn’t he offer Kublai the immortality he always wanted? Marco could have told him, in a moving soliloquy, about how Marco could take word of Kublai’s vast Empire back to the West. I mean, from an actual historical context, the only reason white people know shit about Kublai Khan is because a white guy came back and told them about it. At least then, we’d have a good reason for Marco Polo to hang around Kublai’s court and record events. We could actually see the value Marco adds to Kublai’s court. And it wouldn’t diminish the accomplishments of the Mongols or their constituents. And we could do all that with some element of poetry. But, no. Instead, we get Marco Polo saving the day with catapult technology. Dumb.

This show is not good. There’s some value in seeing the costuming, the martial arts fights, and some of the acting. But there’s more value in just watching all nine seasons of Family Guy on Netflix instead. And I hate Family Guy.


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