The new Marco Polo show on Netflix is addictive in an undeniably enjoyable way, but it is almost universally hated by critics. Netflix and the comments sections seem to agree that the show is excellent and worthy of the 90 million dollar production cost, so what’s up with the critics? Given the recent popularity of a number of HBO shows, I don’t think the problem was with the excess of sex, killing, and political intrigue. My guess is that it was a bucketing problem. In the critics’ limited experience in the sphere of Western media, they have simply not encountered enough Eastern history or Wushu movies.
Let’s address the latter first. Wushu refers generically to Chinese martial arts. It is also an easily identifiable subgroup of Chinese media that involves… you guessed it: elaborate Chinese martial art fight sequences. In order to frame the ass-kicking, these stories are sometimes framed around complicated political dramas that were loosely on history. Wushu TV series are a family staple. Often running 50-100 episodes, my family used to leave it on throughout the day during homework, cooking, and good old couch potato family time. If I miss an episode, I would start a conversation about who tried to assassinate the Qianlong while I was gone and how they failed. From a pure wushu standpoint, Marco Polo did a great job. Usually Chinese people fight in clothes, but the athleticism, artistry, precision, and camera angles were all wonderfully done.
Now, as for the history bit. More than one critic compared this show to Game of Thrones. How would you feel if I watched a show about George Washington, and I said “Haha this funny guy has a wig like a girl, just like Legolas! Except his dialogue is stale, and you should at least let him shoot some arrows!” Get real. No, it wasn’t inspired by Game of Thrones. People who think so: gently unplug your heads from the sandy behinds. I’m a strong believer in education, so I’m here to help.
The story is told a little like the Tudors, where history was warped and massaged even more so than usual, and holes were plugged with homicides and love triangles. But many of the main characters and major events are close to true. Marco Polo, unlike Game of Thrones, is bound by some of the historical events. Zombies aren’t going to kill Kublai Khan, and the girls ride horses but are bartered like objects in court.
Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant in the 1200-1300’s. During his travels, he spent 20 years in the court of Kublai Khan, the grandson of Ghengis Khan. During the time that Marco Polo was in China, Kublai Khan took over the rest of the Song dynasty starting by knocking over the walled city of Xiangyang in central China. Kublai Khan then expanded the empire to the Arabian peninsula, and also had campaigns in Japan and Southeast Asia. (Spoiler! heehee)
After Marco Polo’s travels, he returned to Venice with lots of shiny stones only to find his city in war with Genoa. He defended his home with trebuchets, and then the Genoans captured him and threw him in prison in a cell next to a romance writer who must have also had an incredible memory. Marco Polo dictated his life to Rustichello di Pisa, who then wrote the bestseller, The Travels of Marco Polo. As you can imagine, a very long game of telephone played in a prison cell might include some embellishments.
The show focuses on Marco Polo’s stories in Kublai Khan’s court. Marco Polo starts off as a slave but quickly rises to one of the principal advisors. It’s a stretch, but in terms of places, events, and characters, the story borrows heavily from history. Someone had an issue with Kublai Khan’s harem quarters being called the “Hall of Five Desires.” If you speak Chinese, you would find that probable, and not a surprising translation. There’s so much that does not translate properly since English lacks the idioms, homonym word play, and cadence of Chinese, but that’s not the show’s problem.
I highly recommend the show.
Here are just a few reasons in no particular order:
Orgies, heads getting chopped off, multicultural-ness, excellent acting by Kublai Khan, overall strife indoors and out, shiny pretty headpieces, and really badass bitches like Empress Chabi* and Khutulun**
*Empress Chabi, the chief wife of Kublai Khan, was his advisor and confidant.
**Khutulun, was the real warrior princess. Kaidu had 14 children, 13 sons and 1 daughter, and he favored his daughter to help lead his army because she was a military genius and a champion wrestler. People think she was the inspiration for Turandot.
P.S. For those people complaining about historical timeline inaccuracies. At least it’s not a blind screaming match in the swimming pool. How did that happen?!