Marco Polo Season 1 available December 12 on Netflix.
Netflix reportedly spent $90 million on Marco Polo, making it one of the most expensive TV series ever produced (second only to Game of Thrones), and it’s meant to be a big part of the streaming service’s reach into international territories. While the series does have lavish production values and a cast full of international actors, all the money in the world can’t do anything about the terrible writing, wooden performances and inconsistent tone. Rather than serious and thoughtful, Marco Polo is alternately tedious and salacious, mixing incredibly dull political maneuvering with gratuitous sex scenes and cartoonish violence.
Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy makes his English-language debut as the title character, the 13th-century Venetian explorer who spent nearly 25 years in China. The heart of the show is Marco’s relationship with Emperor Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), the Mongol ruler who conquered China and is trying to defeat the last holdouts of the previous dynasty. But Richelmy barely seems awake in his portrayal of Marco, and Wong is too reserved as Khan. The show’s focus shifts awkwardly within each episode, veering from Marco’s training with a B-movie-style blind kung-fu master to sleazy, nudity-filled brothel scenes to exposition-heavy policy debates in which characters continually remind each other who they are. Instead of evoking the epic scope of a show like Game of Thrones, it’s more reminiscent of Showtime’s history-plus-sex dramas The Tudors and The Borgias, only less compelling. For $90 million, Netflix should have been able to do better.