Marco Polo: Netflix's Critical Flop That Dared to Be Diverse

Viewers don’t have to like the streaming giant's new medieval epic series to acknowledge its significant, if flawed, representation of Asian characters in television.

Netflix/The Atlantic

Since the first season of Marco Polo dropped on Netflix a week ago, the 13th-century medieval epic has suffered a critical pile-on that feels almost gleeful in its disdain. It’s “the most gorgeous thing you’ll ever fall asleep to,” “meh,” “ludicrous,” and “binge-proof,” which may be the worst insult of all to level at a show created by the streaming service that popularized the habit of binge-watching.

Chief among the series' redeeming qualities is its impeccable and accordingly expensive production and ambitious subject matter. Netflix is trying to appeal to a more global audience, so its choice of story was strategic from a business perspective. But a big budget, high hopes, and good intentions it seems wasn't enough to buoy a boring protagonist and flaccid story for many critics and viewers, myself included (despite a suspiciously high Netflix rating boosted by PR-y sounding reviews).

Another unavoidable criticism: When deconstructed, Marco Polo is like a blander, trying-too-hard, real-life version of a certain HBO hit show adapted from an as-yet incomplete series of fantasy novels.*

But among the first key problems sensed upon the initial release of the show's trailer was its apparent embodiment of that tired storytelling trope, the "white-guy-in-Asia adventure." As Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man wrote back in October:

Ooh. Lots of swords and gongs and mysticism and opium and sexy Asian ladies on silk sheets and shit. And dude, did I just see a naked person doing some kung fu?

After the series debuted, Salon's TV critic Sonia Soraiya also offered a sharp but fair take-down of the show's many flaws, pointing out that:

It feels like a terrible disservice to the strong source material to fall into such well-charted pitfalls about storytelling about other cultures, and a disservice to that $90 million, which apparently could have been better spent.

Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice similarly called on Netflix to "do better" in its portrayal of Asian characters, criticizing Marco Polo for leaning on ludicrous Orientalist stereotypes and privileging the white, Western point-of-view. He also noted that Netflix must have "missed the memo," referring to a list released by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans in 2008 on ways good-intentioned media-makers can bust stereotypes.

But the truth is, despite its many, many flaws, Marco Polo actually does follow many of MANAA's suggestions, including the following:

  • Asian names or racial features as no more "unusual" than those of whites.
  • More Asian and Asian American lead roles.
  • Until the proverbial playing field is truly level, Asian roles—especially lead roles—should be reserved for Asian actors.

Yes, it privileges the point of view of the good-looking, wide-eyed Westerner in a world of "others," but remember another based-on-a-true-story Netflix show that did that but received critical acclaim?

To be fair, Orange Is the New Black did a phenomenal job of following through on creator Jenji Kohan's plan to use Piper as a Trojan horse into the stories of non-white characters who were far more complex and compelling than the ones Marco Polo conjured up. But it's a little disingenuous to write off the show for attempting something similar through the character of Marco Polo, who was meant as a bridge into a story set on another continent hundreds of years ago.

In the grander scheme, the not-so-well-reviewed Marco Polo does more for the overall goal of increasing the representation of Asian characters and breaking down some stereotypes (even as it perpetuates others) than other highly acclaimed Western shows that ignore such characters altogether. Recall that Marco Polo's cast is more than 90 percent Asian; how many other big-budget Western shows can say that?

It would behoove critics and TV viewers alike to acknowledge these kinds of efforts to hire more Asian actors and place them in lead roles. Yes, Olivia Cheng may do many of her scenes naked, and there are ridiculous scenes that feel like fetishization-of-Asian-women-for-the-fetishization-of-Asian-women's-sake, but the female characters also eventually achieve more than a degree of depth.

As Imran Siddiquee wrote for The Atlantic, having more characters of color on television (or on Western screens in general) isn't just a matter of metrics, just as "representation" isn't just some noble abstraction. Movies and shows can engender empathy for the people they portray. And in a time when the foibles of a brutal North Korean dictator make for good comedy (seemingly to the exclusion of anger at the appalling treatment of an entire country), some extra empathy for Asian faces is a good thing.

So I'll suffer the existence of a show with ridiculous orgies and stuffy dialogue if that show that tries to fix an entrenched problem in Western television, even if it falls short (and hey, I have the February debut of ABC's Fresh off the Boat to look forward to!). Certainly, the end goal is a program that is both lauded and progressive in its portrayal of characters of Asian descent, such as Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, Elementary, and The Walking Dead. And on the whole, television is getting much better at the whole diversity thing, even if it's not even quite there yet.

But the Mongolian empire, as it were, wasn't built in a day.

*As someone who owns a Night's Watch shirt, I couldn't get through the first episode, "The Wayfarer" without experiencing a kind of uncanny valley effect from all the disorienting, almost-but-not-quite Game of Thrones similarities. Sample train of thought: Kublai Khan is King Robert Baratheon; Oh hey, it's like Littlefinger's brothel; Marco Polo is Jon Snow; Hundred Eyes is like Syrio Forel; the Chancellor Jia Sidao is kind of like Viserys Targaryen in his  ambition and creepy sister-pimping; the opening scene of the pilot episode is totally like the pilot episode of Game of Thrones.