Marco Polo's instructions are clear enough: "Watch and remember what you see," commands the gouty but still formidable Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), whose Mongol warrior hordes control most of 13th-century China. As if the handsome Venetian (suave Lorenzo Richelmy) would be likely to forget the treacherous yet seductive swirl of history that engulfs him over 10 hours of exotic, satisfying, though by Netflix standards curiously old-fashioned, epic storytelling. (All 10 hours go live on Netflix Friday; six episodes were made available for review.)
"My only fear is that I might awaken in my bed, destined to live a common life once again," Marco confides in his merchant father, who puts that worry to rest by indenturing his son to the Khan's court in order to gain trade access to the Silk Road. Marco's abandonment issues are soon overtaken by a sense of mission as he becomes a trusted adviser to the enigmatic ruler, schooled in kung fu by blind — what did you expect — mentor Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) while navigating a dizzying labyrinth of political, military and carnal intrigues.
The lavishly produced, and reportedly mega-expensive, Marco Polo can be a feast for the eyes, even when the overripe dialogue ("Treachery grows well in the fertile soil of contempt I tilled") and uneven performances feel dramatically undernourished. Most viewers will likely be bingeing for regular doses of martial artistry and battle action, as the Khan plots against the last Chinese stronghold in the walled city of Xiangyang, and they won't be disappointed, unless they're expecting the second coming of Game of Thrones.
As Hundred Eyes points out, "If the Gods are always watching, we might as well put on a good show." Not quite Confucius, but as a philosophy for entertainment, it will do.