By Ed Diokno
With very little fanfare, Marco Polo, the dazzling epic television series, debuted its second season on Netflix over the Independence Day weekend.
If you have been following the #OscarsSoWhite or #WhitewashedOut controversy and want to see more Asians in television and the movies, this series features Asians and Pacific Islanders – thousands of them.
If you want martial arts, this show has the best one-on-one choreographed fighting since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
If you want palace intrigue, complicated plots, back-stabbing or …
If you’re just suffering from Game of Throne withdrawals, this is a story that satisfy that craving.
If you want beautiful women and studly men in your entertainment … well, Marco Polo has one of the best looking casts on television.
Season Two of this remarkable undertaking is noteworthy in a few ways. Although the show is named after the Italian explorer, the Asian cast is getting the better lines and more air time. That means a bigger role for Benedict Wong’s Kublai Khan, whose strong presence demands your attention in every scene he’s in.
The old wise monk Hundred Eyes is delivering some of the series’ best lines. His role is kind of like old lady Crawley in Downton Abbey, getting in zingers to keep the seriousness at bay.
Joan Chen’s role has expanded to be more than a beautiful prop. Her character as wife of the khan now pushes the plot forward and she has ambitions of her own as one of the Khan’s trusted advisers.
The addition of Michelle Yeoh to the cast as the mysterious warrior fighting for the last remnants of the Song empire gives another excuse for those fantastic acrobatic fights Yeo made famous in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
With the reduction of Marco Polo, played by Lorenzo Richelmy, to a side story instead of the main story line, the entire story enters a grander scale allowing more interesting plot lines to be explored.
It would be advised to watch the last episode of season one to reacquaint yourself with all the characters. So much plotting is going on between the different factions seeking power, it is a little difficult keeping everything straight.
It says a lot of how we’ve been brainwashed but I almost expect the characters to speak in British accents because the Brits are so good at historical dramatizations. When some of the characters begin to speak in modern cadence and American idioms, the effect is jarring and out of place.
WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD (Skip the next paragraph)
Don’t mistake Marco Polo as a documentary. The writers take liberty with real history for the sake of drama, but that’s OK if we’re looking for an interesting story. Kublai Khan does not kill the child emperor of the Song Dynasty. But when it occurs in the TV series, it is a powerful, powerful scene.
All in all, the second season looks like an improvement over the first season. It is well worth giving it a second look if you were disappointed with the first season. It’s a beautiful production with its exotic sets and costumes. Thanks to CGI we can now see long shots of the Chinese cities giving us a sense of life in that era.
As viewers become more familiar with the vast array of characters, (a lot is going on) and untangle all the little subplots, it should develop a stronger following. It is only too bad that because it is on Netflix, the viewership will never approach that of Game of Thrones.
Marco Polo could serve another role its writers and producers probably didn’t intend. Because of the shift of attention away from the Venetian adventurer to the Chinese and Mongols, U.S. audiences can see the world from a perspective that is not exclusively Euro-centric and the history and culture of the world did not all emanate from the west.