In the third episode of Netflix’s historical drama Marco Polo, a blind martial-arts master instructs the titular Italian adventurer about kung fu. ”It means supreme skill from hard work,” he teaches while schooling Marco’s ass with crane-and-tiger moves. ”The painter. The calligrapher. They can be said to have kung fu.” An entertaining television show can be said to have kung fu too, though it needs to quickly prove it. You have to knock us out immediately or we won’t be back the next week — or, with a bingeable, the next hour. There’s just too much great kung fu out there to be wasting time on anything that isn’t a kick in the head.
This is to say that Marco Polo‘s pilot blows. The premise is stale, a riff on the Western-white-guilt stranger-in-a-strange-land-goes-native genre. You can start counting the minutes until Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) falls for the moony princess (Zhu Zhu) and repudiates his own exploitative people. There’s an abundance of stunningly costumed characters and palace intrigue but no personalities or relationships to care about, perhaps due to creator John Fusco’s desire to show key individuals as forlorn, abandoned, or isolated. The world of 13th-century China is well reproduced yet visually dull, all dim throne rooms, spare parlors with gauzy curtains, and muddy, dungy villages. Unclothed women abound. You start the hour sweating another bloody, boobsy, broadswords-and-hideous-men periodfest. Before the end, you realize there are worse things. Like being boring.
Somewhere in the middle of episode 2, though, Marco Polo becomes surprisingly watchable. The filmmaking becomes bolder. Cameras glide across grasslands under watercolor blue skies, crosscutting between scenes. Benedict Wong’s Kublai Khan asserts himself as the show’s true center, beginning with a subplot about his unraveling relationship with his brother. Khan is one of those beautifully ugly gangster-kings with principles, cunning, and a palpable internal life. His desire to rule the world is rank, but his vision of an open, pluralistic society (or the illusion thereof) makes him an appealing despot. Joan Chen as Khan’s empress wife slow-burns toward prominence, highlighting the drama’s interest in exploring the plight of its trapped or objectified women.
Other characters start popping too. Jia Sidao (Chin Han), the cruel, insect-obsessed chancellor of a Chinese city-state, is a fine villain. The struggle of his concubine sister Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), whom he uses as a spy against Khan, is compelling. Cheng plays many of her scenes naked, and the one where she slays three soldiers while au naturel is Starz-is-born memorable.
In spite of some strengths, Marco Polo is weakest when it’s all about Marco Polo. Richelmy is likable but short on presence and depth. Marco’s arc, tracking the maturation of a naive, passive man-child into a toughened romantic hero, only accentuates this. Maybe he’ll grow as his character does. For now, he stands for a show that has some kung fu but requires the patience of a grasshopper to see it. B-