Gullible media types have billed “Marco Polo” as Netflix’s possible answer to “Game of Thrones.” The more logical comparisons would be a thematic one to “Shogun” — that splendid miniseries of yesteryear, about a European traveler navigating strange-to-his-eyes Asian culture — and a qualitative tilt toward History’s “Vikings,” albeit with far more nudity, as well as clunkier dialogue. Handsome to look at, reasonably entertaining and questionable as history, the series luxuriates in a period setting that provides license for all the usual barbaric diversions. Still, having viewed the first six of 10 episodes, if somebody yells, “Marco!” nobody should feel compelled to answer right away.
Instead of a slavish devotion to the adventures of Marco Polo (newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy) — the young Italian who spent time in the court of Mongol leader Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) in the 13th century, and gave rise to a game played by children in swimming pools — series creator John Fusco (“The Forbidden Kingdom”) has used the exotic backdrop as an invitation to dabble in B-movie cliches. These range from the blind master Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) who dispenses “Kung Fu”-like wisdom while teaching Marco the martial arts, to the beautiful and forbidden princess (Zhu Zhu) who immediately catches the visitor’s eye.
Brought to China by his father, whom he barely knows, Marco is essentially left with the Mongol leader as an offering to secure Dad’s access to lucrative trading routes. Yet his insights spur Khan’s curiosity, and he is quickly drawn into the machinations and power struggles surrounding the court, teeming with threats in the form of spies and even family, as well as a concubine (Olivia Cheng) who’s no slouch in the carnage department, either.
Featuring a largely unfamiliar cast (Joan Chen is among the more recognizable players as Khan’s protective wife), Wong certainly strikes an arresting figure as the ruthless if somewhat philosophical emperor, and Chin Han is intriguing as Jia Sidao, a calculating, sadistic chancellor in the Song court.
By contrast, Richelmy’s Marco, while conventionally handsome, is thinly drawn and a bit charisma-challenged, providing not much more than a surrogate for Western eyes. Richard Chamberlain circa 1980, where are you when we need you?
Similarly, the dialogue proves intermittently stilted, always a challenge in this sort of period piece, where people say things like, “Of the yin and yang, you have an abundance of yang,” as the blind Hundred Eyes tells Marco.
So while “Marco Polo” possesses scope, scale and an inordinate amount of exposed skin, the series exhibits only a sporadic pulse. That leaves a property that can be fun taken strictly on its own terms, but deficient in the binge-worthy qualities upon which Netflix’s distribution system has relied.
“Perform as if your life depended on it,” an official tells potential concubines, auditioning for spots in the great Khan’s service. “It most likely does.”
Thanks to Netflix’s mysterious metrics and the project’s potential international appeal, the stakes for this Electus and Weinstein Co. collaboration probably aren’t that high. And that’s the good news for a series that looks the part in terms of vying for a spot among elite period dramas, but winds up feeling like a pretender to the throne.