ANNIE LUNDGREN WRITES – “Marco Polo” is Netflix’s newest warfare-meets-orgy saga. Despite failing with critics, the historical melodrama was greenlit for a second season in January. Since Netflix does not release ratings data, it is safe to assume that the show is doing well among viewers. Marco Polo showcases Asian culture by following the Italian explorer’s adventures in the Mongolian empire of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The show is reminiscent of HBO’s immensely popular “Game of Thrones,” featuring an early tribal society setting and a “clash of cultures” premise.
Warfare, gloomy lighting, murmuring men, kung-fu fighting, and harem-style sex constitute the majority of the show’s fifty minute episodes. Most of the characters speak with an annoying formality and in metaphors that exhaust viewers. Here is a memorable and ridiculous line from the oversexed Emperor Kublai Khan:
“My second wife, she has a golden tongue…I have a goal to keep her in the abyss she calls a mouth. My third wife, just small and wrinkled teets like the fruit of a fig tree. But Chabi, she is an irreproachable gift from the eternal blue sky”.
Bizarre lines and lack of emotion are major issues with the show. The main characters clearly endure physical and emotional suffering in warfare and in kingdom politics, yet they almost always remain inexpressive and even indifferent.
The objectification of women is to be expected from the commercialized epic-melodrama genre that Marco Polo inhabits. The main female characters, who are elite members of the dynasty, are often portrayed stoically and emotionlessly gazing at their own reflections at their vanities. Other women are frequently shown naked in sex scenes, particularly in the emperor’s harem. One attractive female character even exhibits her super-human kung-fu skills – in the nude, of course.
Despite these negatives, Marco Polo has many redeeming elements, including visual effects and historical references. The show offers arresting panoramic shots of horseback riding across the Gobi Desert and swirling sand storms. History buffs will enjoy the many references to the Crusades.
One cringe-worthy but unforgettable scene occurs when Uncle Sidao breaks his niece’s feet for binding and says, “By assuming cruelty can bring beauty, pain purifies and leads to peace.” Another great moment features Marco Polo trading white jade with African, Arab, and Chinese merchants. Historically, the explorer is credited with bringing jade and other precious commodities like silk and porcelain to Europe.
In many ways, Marco Polo is surprisingly refreshing. It focuses more on Kublai Khan’s rule and less on Marco Polo’s discoveries. The show spotlights East Asian culture and emphasizes Confucian values like honor, shame, saving face, and philosophy.
Reactions from critics and audiences have been mixed. The show had the potential to be Netflix’s next digital hit, after its Emmy-winning shows House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. The streaming media giant is also planning to break into the East Asian market next fall in Japan and eventually into China.