‘Marco Polo’ is not yet a thing

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The real hero of Netflix’s series “Marco Polo” may be Kublai Khan, portrayed with nuance and subtlety by Benedict Wong, who put on 30 pounds for the role.

by Brian Clarey

Judging by all that has been written about it so far, more people played the pool-deck game Marco Polo this year than watched the Netflix series of the same name.

From almost the moment it came out a couple weeks ago, the historical adventure series about the early days of the famed explorer got lacerated on Twitter and entertainment websites. This week the Atlantic called it a “critical failure.”

But it totally should be a thing. In this series, Netflix leveraged everything they know about binge-worthy television, building on successes like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” while trying to avoid another “Lillyhammer.” And the formula looks solid.

It’s a transparent attempt to woo viewers of HBO’s megaseries “Game of Thrones” — a medieval serfdom fraught with intrigue, wanton sex and war, an empire in peril, ample violence and nudity… this thing was tailor-made for the Westeros heads, who have nothing to watch until the “Thrones” series resumes next year.

Only they’re not into it. It’s like the Netflix show is the last kid in the pool, frantically shouting “Marco!” Only no one’s shouting, “Polo!”

But I’m here to tell you that “Marco Polo” is pretty damn good television, even if it does not quite live up to the template set before it.

It’s been noted that the show doesn’t quite follow the historical record — before he gained fame as great explorer and adventurer in the 13th Century, Polo had interacted with Kublai Khan as a merchant on the Great Silk Road, but the show pits him as a prisoner of the emperor before being drafted as an advisor. But it’s a necessary device to gain access to the court of the Khan, as dysfunctional and toxic as anything in the Seven Kingdoms.

Kublai Khan is trying to live up to the legend of his grandfather, Genghis, by breaching the walled city of Xiangyang, where a chancellor has seized power from a young emperor. Over in the Khanate, conflict between Kublai’s Chinese and Mongol factions create seams in the multicultural kingdom the conqueror has created.

Polo is the fish out of water, left as a tribute to the Khan by his own father, using his skills of observation to survive in a kingdom full of enemies.

It’s so much like “Game of Thrones” that it’s almost ridiculous. Kublai Khan and King Robert could be hunting buddies. And Chancellor Jia Sidao bears direct comparison to the whoremaster Littlefinger. It would be easier to show the similarities in a chart than an article. As in “Thrones,” there are plenty of scenes from the stately pleasure dome.

But there are a few key differences: There are no dragons in “Marco Polo” — not as of Episode 10, anyway. But there is a whole lot of badass kung fu that stands up to anything in the HBO franchise with the exception of the fight between the Mountain and the Viper. In one early scene the emperor’s widow fights off a room full of assassins while completely naked. Top that, Mother of Dragons. Polo himself acquires deadly combat skills over just a few episodes courtesy of the blind Shaolin monk Thousand Eyes.

And while “Game of Thrones” exists in a world populated almost exclusively by white people, Polo is pretty much the only white guy in the entire show, and he’s far from being in control of it.

“Marco Polo” can be lauded for its multiculturalism, accurately reflecting the philosophy of Kublai Khan himself, who initiated many of those he conquered into his horde. It’s refreshing to see so many great roles reserved for people of color, with a token white guy to play the lead.

But in many ways, Polo is the dullest of the bunch. The star of this series is Kublai Khan, played by Benedict Wong, who says he gained 30 pounds for the role.

The legend from the Coleridge poem is presented as human, with a stupid son, a pushy wife and a pain-in-the ass brother. He’s concerned about his legacy, and subversion is everywhere.

It’s no wonder he turned to pleasures of the flesh. Or at least he does in the Netflix version of history, anyway.