TV Review: “Marco Polo” – A Venice Yankee in Kublai’s Court

Written by Braden Thournout December 20, 2014

marco polo

Many of us may be more familiar with Mr. Polo’s pool-game related exploits than anything else. Marco Polo, however, was a famous explorer long ago, long before people covered their eyes and shouted his name. Polo’s adventures were grand and brought new insight into Eastern cultures for all of Europe in his time, and so he has inspired the new Netflix show aptly named “Marco Polo.” While the show won’t win any awards for educating people, it does shine the spotlight on some fascinating historical figures, places, and cultures, all the while being entertaining.

The show’s premise is simple. Niccolò Polo is a Venetian trader seeking to open up the Silk Road and thus all of the East to trade. In his journey to do so, he meets Kublai Khan. In trying to please the Khan and gain access to the Silk Road, he brokers a deal by leaving his son Marco in service to the great Khan. Thus Marco’s life in the court of Kublai Khan begins, knowing nothing of their customs, only spare knowledge of their language, but an incredible gift for story-telling as well as quick learning.

“You are not prepared for the rigors of the journey ahead.”

I am a historical fiction lover myself, so “Marco Polo” caught my eye simply based on the fact it contains powerful and fascinating historical figures from a diverse set of equally fascinating cultures. While there is most certainly creative license taken with some events (for example, apparently Kublai’s younger brother was dead 7 years before Marco’s arrival) this does not inherently hurt the show. It doesn’t claim to be incredibly accurate or an historical textbook, merely inspired by historical events.

marco polo

Very steamy events.

“Marco Polo” is simply a pleasure to look at. From the incredible costumes worn by the various characters, such as Mongol soldier armour, Chinese court dress, and more, there is no shortage of eye-catching diversity. The same can be said of the equally exquisite scenery. There are expansive desert wastes, endless grassy plains, gorgeous cityscapes of varying style, Venetian flashbacks, and more. I am a sucker for a good establishing landscape shot, and early on in the first episode, as the Polo family is brought to Kublai’s capital, there is a shot outside the city showing a vast plain surrounding the city walls with a single tree in the foreground of the shot. Really good stuff, I have to say.

“The blood of an adventurer courses through your veins.”

The cast of “Marco Polo” is lead by Lorenzo Richelmy as the titular Marco and Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan. These two provide an interesting dynamic. The young Marco is nervous and bold, confused and sure of himself all at once. Meanwhile, the Great Khan is portrayed at just the right level of arrogance befitting a man who united such a massive swath of Asia, yet is also humanized in small scenes such as when speaking semi-privately with his son, Jingim (portrayed by Remy Hii). Another performance that stood out to me was that of Tom Wu, simply because I enjoyed every scene he was in as the blind Taoist monk Bayan Hundred Eyes, responsible for teaching and training Marco Polo. The man is incredibly graceful, and the choreography is impeccable.

marco polo

There is a blind monk training montage. Awesome.

As previously mentioned, “Marco Polo” has an excellent sense of style. The intro sequence is very slick, being a sequence of shots showing ink spreading on paper to create shapes. As you may have guessed, I am really big on the visuals in this show as I simply adore ancient Chinese style. I specifically want to further mention the scenes within the Chinese city of Xiangyang. The building interiors are absolutely gorgeous, and the shots of the Chancellor Jia Sidao (played by Chin Han) toying with a preying mantis during a speech is well done. I’ll stop myself there before I begin to ramble.

“Emperor of China. Emperor of Mongolia. I will be emperor of the world!”

At the end of the day, in “Marco Polo” we have a show that can be entertaining if you let it be. It won’t be changing the face of television, and it isn’t quite ground breaking. However, it may inspire someone to look into this fascinating period in history. If you like pretty scenery, Asian culture from the 1200’s, Italian explorers, and more then “Marco Polo” might be the show for you. However, if not-entirely-accurate historical fictions aren’t quite your thing, then I’d suggest giving it a pass as “Marco Polo” probably won’t change your opinion. The first season is all on Netflix, so you can check it out at your leisure.

My Rating: 7/10

marco polo

Not quite the Brady Bunch.

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About Braden Thournout

Braden is a philosophy student with a love for old cartoons. He can probably tell you more about fictional worlds than the real one.

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