Netflix’s original series “Marco Polo” was one of the most ambitious, beautiful, and expensive seasons of television ever to air. (Seriously, the 10-episode season cost a staggering $90 million.)
So it’s kind of weird that nobody really seems to care that the historical drama’s second season comes out tomorrow, July 1.
Here’s what you need to know about what’s weirdly one of Netflix’s most underrated series.
It’s not exactly “great,” but man — does it have potential.
Netflix really wanted “Marco Polo” to be its “Game of Thrones.” It’s got a similar — if somewhat more realistic — swords and sandals setting as the hit HBO series, and a comparable budget, but it never quite caught on the same way. The streaming service doesn’t release viewer stats, but it’s a pretty safe assumption that more people are fans of “Game of Thrones” dragons and ice zombies than this Mongolian period piece (your timeline isn’t being flooded with “Marco Polo” fan theory posts, after all).
Part of this is undoubtedly because Westeros is a more immediately exciting setting than the Yuan Dynasty. Another part of it is that “Marco Polo” is kind of a mess tonally. Half of the time it’s a straightforward, respectful bit of lightly fictionalized history. The other half of the time it’s naked kung fu. (Though, to be fair, most of the fight scenes are dope.)
It’s more than a little jarring, since the two halves don’t quite feel like they go together, and “Marco Polo” might benefit from picking a lane and sticking to it.
Season one was a slow build too, and it took the series a little while to make anybody but the title character seem fleshed-out and worth investing in. That’s a shame, because Marco Polo is probably the least interesting character in the series. Luckily, he’s surrounded by fascinating figures once we get to know them.
And there’s one really cool thing about all these characters…
“Marco Polo” is incredibly diverse.
It’s sad that this is the case, but it’s really surprising — and admirable — that Netflix spent $90 million dollars on a tent pole series that features exactly one (1) major white actor. Sure, Marco Polo is the main character, but as the series goes on he begins to becomes part of the ensemble rather than an outright protagonist, Piper Chapman-style.
Instead, “Marco Polo” showcases the talents of dozens and dozens of amazing Asian actors. Benedict Wong is especially terrific as Kublai Khan, a terrifying, hot-tempered warrior with aspirations of being a truly great ruler even as he harbours doubts about how to best go about that course.
Sadly, this very diversity could be one of the reasons why “Marco Polo” hasn’t caught on with mainstream audiences who aren’t used to seeing such a major production with so few big-name white actors.
“Marco Polo” is the most beautiful show on television. Full stop.
The historical setting of “Marco Polo” was full of details, lush costumes and staggeringly ornate architecture, all found amidst the gorgeous landscapes of the Mongolian Steppe and 13th Century China. It’s instantly clear that a sizable chunk of the $90 million budget of the first season went towards bringing this to life.
Gorgeous cinematography helps bring out the best of the sets and costumes, and there are a staggering amount of extras and horses in most scenes. The whole world “Marco Polo” is recreating seems incredibly real, until it’s undermined by a somewhat silly amount of nude, post-coital martial arts murder. (But again, even those scenes are amazingly shot.)
What’s going to happen this season?
The first part of the first season was all about introducing the viewers, through Marco Polo’s eyes, to Kublai Khan’s kingdom. The second half really kicked into gear when Kublai’s’ war with the walled city of Xiangyang, which was under the control of the cunning and deadly Jia Sidao, chancellor of the Song Dynasty.
Based on the trailer, the sophomore season will see the Khan battling forces from within his own Dynasty, and possibly taking his darkest turn yet.
It looks cool (flaming horses!) and, perhaps best of all, Marco Polo looks like he’s maybe the third or fourth-most important character. Instead, the focus is on Kublai Khan, Hundred Eyes, and the other, more interesting characters than our increasingly unnecessary POV protagonist.
Bottom line: “Marco Polo” isn’t great, but it’s pretty good and has potential to be so much more. Plus, it’s not a coincidence that it’s airing on the first weekend since “Game of Thrones” ended. What else are you gonna watch?
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.