How Netflix’s Extravagant Marco Polo Launched the Streaming Era—For Better or Worse

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How Netflix’s Extravagant Marco Polo Launched the Streaming Era—For Better or Worse

I want to look back at an older time. Not quite as old as 14th C. China but just as ancient in our collective memory. A time when streaming TV was a fresh concept and people were beginning to watch through the binge model. The entire entertainment industry was being turned upside down by the humble DVD mailing service Netflix. And they were about to make their biggest bet yet: turning the story of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan into the second most expensive TV show in history.

The story of Marco Polo the TV show begins in 2012. Writer John Fusco’s imagining of Marco Polo’s diaries had gotten picked up by Starz, but attempts to actually film the series failed. Enter the Weinstein Company, who offered to back the project (apparently because of Harvey Weinstein’s personal interest in Asian cinema). The series found a home in fledgling service Netflix, who sought a big-budget, attention-grabbing show to mark their entrance into the prestige TV space. They wanted a show with broad international appeal—an entirely new market since TV had previously been divided up by region throughout its history. Marco Polo was going to be Netflix’s answer to Game of Thrones, but even richer in historical detail. Game of Thrones was the most expensive series in history and a cultural juggernaut, so everyone wanted to copy its success. Netflix was going to show that the new kid in the entertainment landscape was capable of the same greatness.

Marco Polo producer Daniel Minahan pushed back against the Game of Thrones comparison in a 2014 interview with Uproxx. “The similarity is that there’s court intrigue [and] the scale of it, the idea that we were creating this big spectacle. But… that’s about it.” The team behind Marco Polo believed that they were getting to create a show unlike any other, backed by insane amounts of money and support from Netflix and the Weinstein Company.

But Marco Polo was not just a show for creator John Fusco. In 2007 he traveled the Silk Road with his son on camelback, immersing himself in the history he’d long studied. His son reminded him of Polo himself, a young boy traversing a foreign land. Throughout the journey the two experienced things “like broken ribs and running out of water.” Experiencing the land first-hand and connecting the past to the present fueled his desire to put the story of Marco Polo to screen. Fusco wrote “We would camp at night in the gers and I’d ask about the history of Mongolia and they would say: ‘Well, as Marco Polo said…’”

Marco Polo on Netflix

Designing Marco Polo was an exercise in history and imagination. No actual depictions of Kublai Khan’s court remain, so production designer Lilly Kilvert imagined the setting based on Kublai’s personal tastes and various Chinese, Arabic, and Tibetan influences. The show looks unlike anything else put to screen. Marco Polo also took great care in its fight choreography. The show takes inspiration from different kinds of martial arts, including wu xia and the works of the Shaw Brothers*. With the dedicated interest from Harvey Weinstein and Netflix looking to make a name for itself, Marco Polo was given everything needed to succeed.

*Stuntman Ju Kun was involved with the development of Marco Polo’s fight choreography alongside Breet Chan, but he disappeared on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. My jaw dropped when I read this so you get to know it, too.

On December 12th, 2014, Marco Polo aired its entire first season on Netflix to dismal reviews. The show was criticized for being slow, boring, and a waste of viewer’s time. In his review for, Brian Tallerico called the show “Netflix’s derivative attempt to siphon some of the sizeable audience attracted to historical dramas.” While the performances were strong, especially Benedict Wong’s starring role as Kublai Khan, the overall reception was that Marco Polo was filled with characters no one cares about told without excitement or intrigue. 

But Netflix’s attitude toward renewal was very different in 2014. Not only did Marco Polo get renewed, the show also received a Christmas special in 2015 about the best character: the blind monk martial arts master Hundred Eyes, played by an excellent Tom Wu. Then the show added Michelle Yeoh to the cast of Season 2. Netflix was not about to let Marco Polo fail.

Season 2 of Marco Polo is definitely an improvement. The show realized that the most boring part of Marco Polo is the titular character, so he is smartly sidelined in the second season to make way for more court drama and fight scenes. But even an always wonderful Michelle Yeoh was not enough to bring attention to Marco Polo or justify its high price tag.

In December 2016, five months after Season 2 aired, Netflix and TWC made the joint decision to cancel Marco Polo. This move was considered shocking at the time: Marco Polo became the first Netflix series to not get renewed for a third season. The Hollywood Reporter estimated a $200 million loss for the streamer. And with that, Netflix got a taste for the blood of a canceled TV show.

The story of Marco Polo’s journey from ambitious big-production series to a money loser tossed aside set in place many of the trends that infect streaming today. The first being the tendency to spend big money on unsure bets. Netflix later put hefty budgets behind shows like Sense8 (which garnered a strong fanbase, but not enough to justify its costs) and The Crown (which later became the most expensive series of all time).

The urge to spend big soon infected other streamers also looking for their answer to Game of Thrones. Amazon’s Prime Video put excessive amounts of money into Carnival Row and Wheel of Time, both of which offered meager rewards. Their biggest bet was the first $1 billion show, the recently released Lord of the Rings: the Rings of Power. Even Apple tried to get in on the Game of Thrones copycat market with Foundation, an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s influential book series. Evidently the lesson learned from Game of Thrones’ success was that all you needed was to spend an excessive amount of money on a genre production to create a hit show.

Marco Polo also kickstarted the trend of looking for shows with large international appeal. Netflix found success with series like Money Heist, Elite, and Squid Game, all of which worked primarily as international series brought to the US rather than trying to engineer a co-production. They have characters speaking their native language, as opposed to Marco Polo’s reworking to have everyone in 14th C. China speak English. Amazon is also trying their hand at the international market with the recently released Citadel, a spy series that will feature several international spinoffs tied together in one shared universe (Citadel is also now one of the most expensive shows of all time).

The biggest lesson Netflix seemed to have learned from Marco Polo is that swift cancellations are better for their bottom line. Now it’s a rarity to see a Netflix show get a third season, and no longer the norm. The streamer puts a heavy emphasis on increased content delivery rather than crafting long-running stories. It’s an industry so warped that mega-hit shows like The Sandman and Wednesday barely nabbed second season renewals.

Marco Polo is also one of the earliest shows to use the much maligned mindset of the “10 hr movie” approach to TV. Minahan praised the long movie approach, saying it allowed them to “not have to reiterate storylines” and pushed the creators to make something that felt fresh, not even allowing music cues to repeat too much for fear the binge model would make the melodies repetitive. Now the belief in X-hour movie TV has degraded the medium into chasing after a craftsmanship not suited to its needs. People wanted TV to have the prestige of film, yet all the messaging has done is reiterated the medium as second-class.

Marco Polo is unlike any show I’ve seen in terms of scale, vision, and lackluster execution. It has quickly become lost to Netflix’s sea of content, but it started the streaming era we’re still lost in.  As I researched Marco Polo, I kept going back to the story of John Fusco. I read more about his trip through Mongolia. He said “my own childhood love was Marco Polo.” He speaks about the majesty of the land, about “the last vestiges of the horse cultures in the step” that he encountered in Kazakhstan. But most of all it’s how he describes the experience alongside his son, the coming-of-age journey they went through together. “He and I relive it all the time,” Fusco said. He got hundreds of millionaires of dollars to create the vision of history he’d been obsessed with his entire life. And it barely leaves a dent in Netflix’s portfolio.

Marco Polo pushed the boundaries of what the streaming landscape could become. But then streaming decided not to push any further. It set the mold that the industry is still struggling to break free from. If anything, it’s constricting tighter and tighter. But as we wait to see what the tipping point becomes, we must acknowledge Marco Polo’s role in shaping streaming history. Marco Polo dared to call out, and the rest of the TV industry answered it right back.

Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Gold Derby, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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