THE SERIES "Marco Polo"
WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix
WHAT IT'S ABOUT Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is marooned in the court of great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). Yes, he's the same emperor made so famous by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's classic line, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree." But this is set in his court in 13th century Beijing, where Polo is schooled in the art of kung fu, and meets up with courtesans, plotters and family members, like Princess Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), Empress Chabi (Joan Chen) and Bayan the Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu). This 10-episode drama, first developed for Starz and written by John Fusco ("Crossroads") was shot in Italy, Kazakhstan and Malaysia.
MY SAY In the martial art of kung fu, there is a saying -- that one hand lies, while the other tells the truth. So, which of my hands is telling the truth? The right: That "Marco Polo" is a nice-looking epic, with plenty of good performances by international stars, sweeping vistas and gorgeous sets that almost seem inspired by Coleridge himself -- "gardens bright with sinuous rills, where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree."
Or the left: That "Marco Polo" is inert, incessantly chatty and leaden, where even the sex scenes -- plenty of those! -- have all the forbidden thrill of a trip to the dentist.
In fact, both hands are telling the truth, but the left is being a little bit truthier.
Yes, "Marco" is a puzzle, the nature of which is best expressed by riddle: How can something so exciting be so . . . dull? Perhaps the answer is that the story is exciting in theory -- one of history's greatest wanderers marooned in the court of Kublai Khan, where he bears witness to a quixotic, powerful and ruthless emperor.
But "in practice" is what counts here. Fusco's script insists on telling viewers about the action -- much of it cerebral, court-centric maneuverings -- instead of showing them. Scenes are most often set in darkened rooms, illuminated by a thin reed of sunlight, where even the words -- countless words -- seem to float on the dust motes. After a while, the effect is soporific. A few more kung fu lessons -- or a titanic battle or two -- would serve as welcome, even necessary, interludes. (By the way, I watched only the first four hours. "Polo" may be holding the best for last, but...)
BOTTOM LINE Good-looking -- also lethargic, languid, listless and a little bit lifeless -- at least in the early going.