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Typically, “genre” television comes with a built-in audience. Whether it’s cop procedurals or fairy tale-themed adventures, such genre fare usually attracts a certain number of viewers no matter what the plot, premise, or cast of the show is. After all, that’s what “genre” works are all about; delivering an accepted and familiar set of tropes and signifiers, therefore assuring that eyeballs will be on screens. Historical dramas are popular genre television right now, with shows like Outlander, Reign, Vikings, and, of course, Game Of Thrones all having some kind of critical and commercial success. It makes sense then that Netflix would want a piece of the action, and on paper, the streaming service’s Marco Polo seems to have all of the requisite requirements to be a genre hit: a huge budget, a sprawling cast, and Netflix’s distinct advantage, the ability to watch as many episodes at once as a viewer pleases. Too often though, genre works tend to skate by on aesthetic alone, and if Marco Polo’s first episode, “The Wayfarer,” is any indication, this might be one of those works.

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It’s perhaps fitting then that the show opens not with an establishment of character, but rather tone. The camera swings down from the sky and captures a small village burned to the ground, bodies pierced on stakes and displayed as a warning, the work of the “barbarian devil king,” aka. Kublai Khan. We get a stilted (but, I guess, necessary) explanation of why the village was burned: it had remained loyal to the Chinese Song dynasty even while Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty, has taken much of China for the Mongolian empire. Soon, a traveler with Marco Polo and his father can’t bear the sight of the brutality and attempts to flee, but is run down and shot full of arrows by charging members of Khan’s army. Marco and company stare at the horsed warriors, their hands in the air as a sign of surrender. This opening scene embodies the imbalance between aesthetic beauty and thematic emptiness that comes to define the entire episode. The camerawork and cinematography is undeniably gorgeous, but the creative vision its peddling is emotionally empty. We’ve been introduced to these characters in terms of them being on screen, but the show jumps into a discombobulated narrative before we get to learn much else. When, in the very next scene, Polo’s father leaves him as a servant to Khan so that he may be freed to gain access to trade routes along the Silk Road, there’s no emotional heft.

Part of that lack of emotion is due to the episode’s structure, which starts with the scene mentioned above before jumping back in time and filling in the details of Marco’s relationship to his father. And by “details” I mean a paint-by-numbers origin story that glosses over three years of tension, abandonment, and insecurity in a futile attempt to make us feel something for Marco. The backstory may yet be fleshed out with more detail in future episodes, but for a pilot episode that’s meant to hook us to the characters (and the titular character, at that), it’s insufficient. Everything feels hurried. One minute we’re in Tabriz in 1271, and not three minutes later we’re in the Taklamakan Desert in 1273. This kind of narrative hopscotch only serves to make the plot and characterizations seem fleeting. Just as we, the viewer, are getting our bearings, the show is whisking off us to another locale. It makes for great landscape shots, but it fails to establish a solid core for the show to build on.

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At the core of the show is Marco Polo, and it’s not a good sign that throughout this episode, Lorenzo Richelmy fails to bring anything unique or compelling to the role. The casting director could have changed actors twice in the middle of this episode and I wouldn’t even have noticed. Part of this is that Richelmy has very little to work with. We don’t get much deep dialogue in this episode, and every conversation that Marco is part of is ridden with clichés and faux wisdom. Much of the dialogue is like listening to a horoscope being read aloud. It’s vague, and comes with an oriental tinge that borders on racist. That’s nor Richelmy’s fault, but still, Marco feels bland and lifeless, hardly the traits of a protagonist.

Still, there’s the faintest glimmer of potential in the pilot. Benedict Wong is imposing as Kublai Khan; it’s just a shame that the writers seem to imagine his character as an over-the-top warrior version of Jabba the Hutt. Couple that with the socio-political conflicts that this episode hints at, and you have the potential for a series that, even if it isn’t thematically deep, could still be good historical popcorn drama. Too much of “The Wayfarer” is hackneyed though, too readily settling into cliché beats. It’s as if the writers are worried about losing their audience after the first episode, and so have to cram in as much exposition and atmosphere as possible. This leads to more than a few ridiculous moments, including a scene where Khan screams that he wants to be Emperor of Everything, and then slams his sword through the map in front of him, penetrating the one walled city, Xiangyang, that remains out of his grasp. The final scene is just as ludicrous; it’s a softcore porn scene that tells us absolutely nothing about this world or the people that populate it. Nudity is fine, but let it be used sparingly and with purpose. Judging by “The Wayfarer” though, “sparingly” and “with purpose” aren’t going to be descriptors applied to Marco Polo as the show moves forward.

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Stray observations:

  • Welcome to daily (yep, you read that right) reviews of Netflix’s Marco Polo. Together, we will burn through these 10 episodes (one review per day for the next 10 days) before the holidays, all the while hoping that the show improves upon this lackluster and largely forgettable pilot episode.
  • I wasn’t the only one rolling my eyes while Marco and his father talked like dorm-room philosophers under the stars, right?
  • “Improving diplomatic ties” is code for sex within the walled city. Can’t say I’m not a little interested in the powerplay that might happen here, with the Emperor dying and his children clearly on completely separate pages as to what to do once he breathes his last breath.
  • “The Wayfarer” is the exact opposite of doing more with less. So much time is spent showing off the expanse of the narrative, and yet, what have we really learned? What have we been left with by episode’s end that will convince us to invest nine more hours in this show?
  • In this show’s version of China, badasses like to eat fruit when emphasizing how badass they are.
  • Just one example of hackneyed dialogue: Marco: “I followed the wrong path.” Intimidating guard: “Indeed you did.” See what they did there?

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