During my annual post-holiday crash and burn, I plugged into Netflix's new series Marco Polo. I know the series has received some criticism for stereotypical Asian characters (Lenika Cruz gives a balanced review on this subject at The Atlantic). However, overlooking the usual credibility issues in these kinds of "historical" dramas, Marco Polo fares well in terms of story and characterization, which is what draws me to a series more than anything else.
First, let me clear up the Game of Thrones misperception. Marco Polo isn't anything like Game of Thrones. I don't know who began that comparison, but it is wrong. If anything, Marco Polo follows the example set by shows like The Tudors and The Borgias. It is a drama that is more fiction than history, although it is set loosely in a historical framework with people whose names we recognize. Marco Polo contains the holy trinity of successful "historical" television series formating: beautiful costumes, luscious fight scenes, and copious sex.
I wasn't banking on historical accuracy. What made this series work for me is the wonderfully diverse cast of some of the most excellent actors working today. My favorites were Benedict Wong as Kublai and Joan Chen as the Empress Chabi (Chin Han rode in a close third--more on him in a moment). From their very first scenes together, Wong and Chen are comfortable together as a couple. Their charisma and chemistry make the younger cast members look like children playing house. Wong's portrayal of Kublai is nuanced and riveting, just the kind of performance that I love to see. Chen turns Chabi into the quintessential empress. She is confident and does not fear to speak her mind to her husband. She is Kublai's partner, his confidant, and his best friend. Never is she seen as being subservient to him, nor would his character demand it of her. His respect and love for her is evident in how he listens to her and follows her wise counsel. Together, they are invincible.
Lorenzo Richelmy grows into his role as Marco Polo beautifully. Here, Polo serves as the viewer's eye into Kublai's world. At first, Polo tries to convince Kublai that the Western world is superior to the Mongol court; however, as the story progresses, Polo works harder and harder to assimilate himself into the Mongol culture. He slowly releases his past in an attempt to become a part of a culture that rejects him because of the way he looks. There are times when Polo seems to disappear from the story, but here it is important to remember that his role is that of an observer (and to be our eyes). Richelmy knows this too, and he merges into the scenes rather than attempt to dominate them. In Kublai's court, Polo is the "other" and he is never allowed to forget it.
Chin Han plays Kublai's antagonist, Jia Sidao. Han's nuanced portrayal of Jia Sidao allows the viewer to see why Jia Sidao became the man he did, but he never allows the viewer to have too much empathy for the character. Olivia Cheng is perfect as Jia Sidao's sister Mei Lin. All for the same reasons. She is cunning but very human, and even when the script tries to demean her with gratuitous sex scenes, she carries herself with poise and dignity. These subtle shades and tones of character are what makes Marco Polo worth watching.
All of the characters revolve around Kublai Khan, not Marco Polo. Even Polo is captivated by the man and his charisma, and Wong is a powerful actor, who rises to the role, as do all of the members of the cast. More than anything, I hope that Marco Polo shows there is audience for diverse casts and storylines. Even with its imperfections, the show is an honest attempt create something far different from the more common Westernized "historical" dramas. I'd like to give see it given another season.
And in terms of a teeny spoiler: I was sorry to see Amr Waked's character Yusuf leave the show. Waked's Vice Regent was one of my favorite characters and I loved Waked's portrayal of Yusuf.