NETFLIX has produced some of the most popular TV shows and films today. From the political drama that is House of Cards to the comedy that is The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, they have visited all manner of genres to mostly successful effect. Historical dramas in the UK have a horrible habit of focusing on the same periods of history such as Henry VIII for The Tudors and Wolf Hall or World War I and the 1920s for Downton Abbey for an interminable six series. Needless to say, the experience of watching these types of dramas feels rather stale.
Netflix contributes to historical dramas, however, with the breath of fresh air that is Marco Polo. The show follows the adventures of the famous explorer following him being left as tribute by his father and uncle in the court of Kublai Khan, the emperor of China (and grandson of the infamous Genghis Khan). And whilst the show is named after and focuses on the Italian figure, it focuses considerably on the life of the Imperial court and its objectives.
Like most historical dramas, there is an instinctive impulse to compare the show to Game of Thrones. Granted there’s plenty of sex, sword fighting violence and feudal political intrigue, but there is an obvious clear line between real life events and fantasy. This is not to say that everything in the show is historically accurate; it is still a piece of fiction, and there are only so many sources they can use on 13th century China. It would be far more apt to compare the show with Vikings or Da Vinci’s Demons, both of which in obvious ways take historical liberties for the sake of an interesting plot. Of these two shows, I would say it is definitely on par with Vikings, mainly thanks to its broad array of interesting characters and relationships.
The cast is definitely one of the strongest aspects of the show. Benedict Wong has a great presence yet also vulnerability in his portrayal of Kublai Khan, and Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo himself shows great charm and naivety. Also, this article would be remiss to not mention Tom Wu playing the wise Taoist monk Hundred Eyes. Not only does the character provide some humour and wisdom, but also demonstrates some really fun action scenes to showcase Wu’s martial arts skills.
The show greatly benefits from this as it is not also fascinating and compelling to watch unravel over the course of the season. From the internal dynastic disputes amongst the Khan’s family in securing his heir to delivering the finishing blow to the dwindling Song dynasty, the series touched upon many interesting historical events through the eyes of the newcomer Marco. It is in the setting and the following of these developments that make the show truly enjoyable. To most, the setting is very much unknown and unfamiliar, as are the events that occur. By covering a new historical setting it breathes some new life into a genre that can be boringly covering the same time period again and again.
Whereas other historical dramas such as Da Vinci’s Demons may cast predominantly British actors with a ‘good enough’ manner for the setting of renaissance Italy, the majority of the cast for Polo is filled with those of who hail (or are descended) from the character’s country of origin. This means that most of the cast is of a Chinese or Asian descent, and even Richelmy himself is Italian. Given the great performances, the show therefore is a good example for the inclusion of more diverse casting for people of colour in film and TV, a winning template many American studios and producers are reluctant to follow.
With a second season on the way (no date yet), I will be most interested in continuing to watch this Netflix original for as long as it runs.