Watching “Marco Polo,” Netflix’s extravagant but stultifying period drama about the legendary 13th-century traveler, is about as exciting as discovering a new Pier 1 Imports in the strip mall. (That might be more exciting, actually.)
Bearing the imprimatur of the Weinstein brothers as executive producers and created by screenwriter John Fusco (whose previous work includes the Jackie Chan and Jet Li movie “The Forbidden Kingdom” and the “Young Guns” Westerns three decades ago), “Marco Polo” boasts a lot of Far East flash and cinematic ambition, but it’s weighed down by its own sense of the exotic.
Given its itinerant subject material, “Marco Polo” is also disappointingly inert in its first six episodes. (All 10 episodes begin streaming Friday.) I’m not sure how much any of us know about Marco Polo (for some, he’s just a name game in the shallow end), but I would bet that most viewers would expect a TV series based on his life to include quite a bit of arduous — and adventuresome — continent-hopping.
Not so, at least not here.
The story begins with Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) as a restless young man in Venice. The father he’s never met, Niccolo Polo (Pierfrancesco Favino), is a traveling merchant who has just returned from a decades-long journey to Asia. As the two get to know each other, Niccolo dismissively rejects his son’s enthusiastic request to tag along on the next voyage.
And so, when Niccolo and Marco’s uncle, Maffeo (Corrado Invernizzi), set off for Mongolia and China (circa 1270), Marco stows away aboard their ship. In a montage lasting a paltry few minutes, the Polo expedition covers a couple thousand miles of mountain ranges and deserts. Is this “Marco Polo” or “The Amazing Race”?
The hurry-up brings us to the court of the great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), who is displeased that Niccolo and Maffeo have failed to bring the papal emissaries Khan asked to meet when the Italians last passed through his lands. In return for renewed access to trade routes, Niccolo offers Khan full custody of Marco.
An aghast Marco is hauled off for a shave and scrub while his father and uncle depart; “Marco Polo” then becomes a story mainly of palace intrigue, centered on Marco’s new life as a somewhat pampered prisoner who becomes one of Khan’s confidants.
“Marco Polo” seems to draw on every available trope of cinematic Orientalism — there are ancient dynasties, bloody battles and the martial arts. Also prominent: temperamental rulers, duplicitous courtesans, fancy violence, dragon-lady stereotypes (including Joan Chen as Khan’s empress wife), sexy concubines, Eastern mysticism and other vague footnotes. There’s even a blind and wizened martial-arts instructor tasked with training Marco to use the Force, or whatever.
Wong delivers “Marco Polo’s” only notable performance as the mighty Khan; he’s far more complex than the garden-variety gluttonous tyrant we expect. In the title role of Marco, however, Richelmy is easy on the eyes and not good for much else. You know you’re in trouble when a series called “Marco Polo” is at its least interesting whenever Marco is on the screen.
It takes several episodes for a viewer to sort through the internecine power struggles and various motives of each of the players, which should not be news to any viewers who take their TV shows super-serious and super-sprawling.
The ins and outs here are not any more or less difficult to discern than most premium cable series of the quasi-historical ilk, whether exemplary (“Vikings”) or forgettable (“The Borgias”), but the payoff for keeping track of “Marco Polo’s” many characters is frustratingly negligible. The show suffers from a profound lack of momentum and meaning, with plots and subplots that are stiff and predictable. It’s odd, don’t you think, for a show about exploring the world to go absolutely nowhere?
This is all precisely the opposite of the Netflix way of watching: When you get to the end of an episode of “Marco Polo,” the last thing you feel like doing is queueing up one, two or five more. It’s practically binge-proof.
Unless, of course, you’re here for the young, naked Asian women. They’re everywhere in “Marco Polo,” to an almost pervy degree, which makes watching the show feel like that time you accidentally glimpsed your father-in-law’s browser history. Around episode 4, it occurred to me that Fusco and company might simply be going through the motions of making a grandiloquent historical drama when what they really wanted to make was a peep show with a little kung fu thrown in.
(10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Netflix.