Historical dramas have been a staple of premium cable programming, with shows like THE BORGIAS, THE TURDORS, and ROME garnering praise from both critics and fans alike; so it comes as little surprise that Netflix, with its continual expansion of original programming, has decided to throw their hat into the historical ring with MARCO POLO. The show focuses on the early life of the famous merchant, as his adventures on the silk road are just beginning. Following the death of his mother, young Marco forces himself onto his father’s merchant caravan, much to the annoyance of his uncle. Despite dangerous environments and close calls with bandits and other less than savory locals, Marco and his family eventually arrive at the court of Kublai Khan. Unfortunately, the Khan is less than impressed with the Polos, as they have failed to deliver on some of his requests, so in an effort to secure the right to trade on the silk road, Marco’s father offers him up as a gift to the Khan, much to young Marco’s surprise and anger. A stranger in a strange land, Marco begins to be trained in the Mongol and Chinese arts of warfare, but the far trickier task is going to be learning the ways of the Khan’s court. Marco soon discovers that, like any court, there are a myriad plots and intrigues being played out and that if he has any hope of surviving, he is going to have to learn to be as cunning as he is clever.
The life of Marco Polo is the perfect premise for a historical drama, particularly when infused with some Hollywood creativity. As Polo’s exploits primarily take place in the far east, it instantly has a fresh appeal over other prominent historical series as they traditionally take place in the west or in the Roman empire, thus giving the audience something it hasn’t seen before to get them excited. Additionally, much of the show’s drama and fun comes from Polo trying to learn and maneuver in a foreign culture, an experience that is almost universally relatable as most people have traveled somewhere in their life where they didn’t feel completely at home. This wonderfully engrossing premise is complimented by fantastic writing, which I was a bit surprised by because while John Fusco (THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM) created the show and wrote three episodes, there are four other writers throughout the season and yet the tone and attitude of the show remain consistent.
The production values of MARCO POLO are quite extraordinary. Being set in the far east in the 13th century, the show doesn’t have quite the opulence that typically accompanies the western based historical dramas, but that doesn’t mean the more simplistic eastern styles are any less impressive. With costumes, camps, and historic cities all looking very period appropriate while being simultaneously breath taking, it’s very easy love the show’s visual treats. To go along with the visuals, the show clearly spent a significant amount of time researching the customs of both the Chinese and Mongols of the time, as their protocols and political systems are handled with respect while still adding enticing elements to the story. Another strong point was the camera work. Far too often I find that over cutting is used to try and heighten the emotional impact of certain scenes, thankfully, POLO shies away from that, allowing the performances and expressions delivered by the actors to do their job without adding unnecessary aid.
Speaking of actors, one of my favorite parts of the show were the wonderful performances delivered by what is truly an outstanding ensemble cast. Lorenzo Richelmy steps into the role of Marco Polo, and while he is almost certainly unknown to US audiences as he is an Italian actor, he is beyond talented and perfect in this role. Richelmy makes acting look easy as his portrayal of the quick witted and highly observant Polo seems effortless. He gives the character just the right amount of passion and curiosity, creating a character that is both relatable and endearing. I certainly hope this series won’t be his only international work, because his talents should not be missed. Stepping into the role of Kublai Khan is Benedict Wong (PROMETHEUS) and he is fantastic. Wong brings the right combination of sophistication and barbarism to the Mongol king, giving us a character that is endlessly fascinating yet unpredictable. Joan Chen (LUST, CAUTION) plays Empress Chabi, wife of Kublai Khan, and she gives a heartfelt performance. Chabi is a woman devoted to her man and his well being, even when he is too blind to see it, Chen brings this character to life with a smoldering fire that makes her quite endearing. Filling the role of the blue princess Kokachin is Zhu Zhu (CLOUD ATLAS) and she does a wonderful job of portraying a woman who outwardly appears in control but internally is a mess.
One of the most impressive performances comes from Chin Han (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER) who portrays Jia Sidao, a Chinese bureaucrat who has seized power and is the chief enemy of Kublai Khan. Han has been on my radar for a few years now, ever since he appeared in THE DARK KNIGHT, and every performance he gives is spot on. Han is a scene stealer as the subtle Sidao, easily creating a character who seems weak and feeble but in reality is anything but, it’s truly a masterful performance. Uli Latukefu (TV’s DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND) plays Byamba, bastard son of Kublai Khan. What caught my eye was Latukefu’s intensity, he has a brashness to him that gives him an inescapable presence, so it’s no surprise that he consistently steals scenes from more prominent characters. Lastly, I want to mention Claudia Kim (soon to be in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON) who played the role of Khutulun, niece to Kublai Khan and a fierce warrior. Kim uses her considerable acting talents to create one of the most entrancing women on screen in recent memory. Part warrior, part trickster, all woman, in the character of Khutulun she has created an empowered woman who fearlessly controls her own destiny, I was very impressed.
When it comes to historical dramas, MARCO POLO proves that Netflix can handle the genre just as well as HBO and Showtime. The series boasts an outstanding cast, great production values, and a story that is intriguing and relatable. If you love history, epics, or you just want to see some fantastic acting and action, then give MARCO POLO a watch, you’ll be glad you did.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10