The Mongol hordes have never really gotten any props. Until now. Marco Polo, Netflix's magnificent-looking 10-part series, celebrates these conquerors from Central Asia, who in the 13th century established the largest empire in history.
This sweeping saga is told through the eyes of the Venetian Polo (Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy, who looks like a handsomer Daniel Radcliffe. Far handsomer.)
As a young man, Polo is abandoned by his trader father (Pierfrancesco Favino of Rush) in the court of Kublai Khan, becoming a lowly stranger in a very strange land.
This is where the project gets interesting, because the Mongol ruler is played by Benedict Wong (Prometheus). It's an indelible performance by the British actor, during which he pads imperiously around his palace in a voluminous golden silk robe in a manner so entitled it will remind you of rapper Rick Ross.
Interestingly, the last time there was a major TV production of Marco Polo was in 2007, and Ian Somerhalder (The Vampire Diaries) played the young explorer and Brian Dennehy (!) was the Khan.
Meanwhile, back in Mongolia, Polo, whom the natives address as "Latin," is put to work as an apprentice tax collector but is gradually given greater responsibility and access until he is playing chess with the big guy.
Tutored in calligraphy, hawking, archery, equestrianism, and martial arts, he gets an altogether thorough education in the customs of the Orient: culinary, mercantile, and romantic.
Tom Wu (Da Vinci's Demons) gives the series' other notable performance as Polo's blind Shaolin monk kung fu instructor Master Po, um, I mean Hundred Eyes. "Of the yin and the yang," Hundred Eyes informs his protégé, "you have an abundance of yang."
Despite this imbalance, our Italian émigré is soon a player in the international intrigue of Khan's court. The Mongols are trying to subdue the Chinese and their very devious and refined chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han of Arrow).
One of the hallmarks of this Marco Polo is that the female characters are just as forceful and interesting as the males. The sterling contingent of actresses includes Joan Chen, Zhu Zhu, Olivia Cheng, and Claudia Kim.
However, like Game of Thrones, Marco Polo is rather profligate in its use of female nudity - to the point of gratuitous sexuality. We not only spend a good deal of time in the Khan's Hall of Five Desires, we even get to see the auditioning process.
John Fusco's script also takes liberties with actual events. Kublai, for instance, did not kill his brother Ariq in a fateful sword fight as two opposing armies of horsemen looked on. He did imprison him, which isn't quite as cinematic.
Shot primarily in Kazakhstan and Malaysia, the series is richly atmospheric, lavishly produced, and artfully rendered. But you may find that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. It doesn't work nearly as well as drama as it does as sheer spectacle.
But check it out, anyway. How many chances do you get to visit Xanadu?
Available for download on Friday on Netflix