Pilot episodes tend to be a mixed bag. Some pilots get you hooked immediately but the luster it initially dazzled you with may soon fade as the season progresses. Some pilots can start slow, often turning away new audiences until the show picks up throughout the rest of the season. Netflix’s Marco Polo falls under the latter end of that spectrum.
The show dumps us in the midst of things by setting the tone and location of the series as well as the circumstances that leave Marco Polo a captive or “honored guest” in the court of Kublai Khan. Then suddenly it cuts back to three years ago in Venice and spends a good 10 minutes setting up Marco’s backstory as well as his somewhat non-existent relationship with his always absent father.
The time spent depicting the long and arduous journey the Polos take from Venice to Northern China was definitely one of the episode’s major low-points. Perhaps the director found it necessary to illustrate just how much area was covered. Honestly this could’ve easily been summed up with an infographic that starts with a marker in Venice and crosses across the Middle East, past Mongolia, and ends in what is now Beijing, China. Doing so would’ve given the episode more time to devote to character interaction and development.
Despite minor info dumps about the circumstances in both Kublai Khan’s court in Cambulac as well as the situation with the Song Dynasty government in the walled city of Xianjiang, the episode does a decent job of introducing most of the cast in a way that doesn’t feel too stilted.
There is Hundred Eyes the blind Taoist monk who is charged with instructing Marco in the Art of Kung Fu. There are the sycophantic courtiers vying for the Khan’s favor as well as his relatives from the Mongol homeland, who cling to their own Mongol customs and feel that his dream of annexing China into the already vast and multi-cultural Mongol Empire is a bit too over-reaching and not an agenda worth pursuing.
In the heart of it all is Kublai Khan himself and let me just say that the role is perfectly cast. Benedict Wong has a presence that commands the room. He has breathed life into a name that is often skimmed over in most World History classes.
Oh, did I forget to mention that Joan Chen is in this show? She is calm and dignified as Empress Chabi, Kublai’s favorite wife and most trusted advisor. It’s so great to see her again and it looks like she hasn’t aged much since her days in Twin Peaks.
Many would argue that the show possesses too many tropes and, though it does, that doesn’t necessarily mean the show is not worth watching. Yet in a genre oversaturated with shows that depict Medieval Europe, Marco Polo is a breath of fresh air because of its ethnically diverse and ethnically appropriate cast (I’m side-eyeing you, Exodus!). Can anyone name a show that has presented this particular time and place in history to a Western audience? And I suppose that is the role Marco fulfills throughout the pilot: he is the audience stand-in for the time, place, and culture that is largely unknown to many westerners and is often misunderstood.