Editors note: While diversity in casting is increasingly front and center, there’s evidence of a reward in greater viewership. Take Netflix’s Marco Polo, the John Fusco-created historical drama that just bowed its Season 2. Netflix doesn’t provide ratings figures, but its makers cite Parrot Analytics which places Marco Polo as currently the second-most-watched original digital series behind another diverse Netflix show (Orange Is The New Black) and the 10th-most-watched series on all platforms. In a guest column, Fusco lauds Netflix for taking a chance on the show.
As Marco Polo continues to stream on Netflix, accruing a loyal and dedicated global following, one can only hope that the swimming pool game will fade as the main association with the Venetian traveler’s name. I think a fair amount of poolside grownups might like to see the game fade altogether, but I could be wrong. Let’s not even get started on the stubborn myth that Marco brought noodles back from China and inspired tortellini. But what did he really bring back to the West and why does Marco Polo matter today?In many ways the Silk Road was the first Information Super Highway, and Marco Polo was one of its earliest trailblazers — he became an informational bridge between East and West. His nonjudgmental accounts and positive portrayals defied foreign stereotypes and opened up a new view of Asia — and that’s one reason why his stories were not initially believed. It’s also why I find it relevant that a series named for him and his travels features a cast that is 97% Asian and ethnic minorities, one of the most diverse ensembles on television today — remarkable, refreshing talent representing many parts of the world.
At a time when there’s much contention and strain surrounding Hollywood for its lack of diversity, I’m proud to be on the side that’s breaking barriers. I’m grateful to Ted Sarandos, Cindy Holland, and the entire team at Netflix for their courage and willingness to get behind this project, for sharing this view and recognizing the vast and authentic pool of ethnically-diverse talent. Actors such as Benedict Wong, Joan Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Tom Wu, Olivia Cheng, Remy Hii, Uli Latekefu, Mahesh Jadu, Claudia Kim, Zhu Zhu, Rick Yune, Chin Han, Ron Yuan, Leonard Wu, and many others are among the most brilliant and compelling performers I’ve worked with over a 30-year career. I’m hopeful that this kind of onscreen representation is the start of an exciting and long overdue turn.
For Marco Polo: Season 2 to receive the same high praise from both critics and viewers sends a message that is twofold. It demonstrates that you can have a series in the top ranks of Most Popular TV Shows while starring mostly Asian and minority actors. Secondly, it proves that viewers do not discriminate based on race; they are interested in quality programming and storytelling regardless of ethnicity and gender.
The character of Marco Polo was never an attempt to shoe-horn in a white character to tell an Asian story. Historically, Marco Polo — whether an observer or minor player — was actually part of this pivotal chapter in Asian history as the Song Dynasty gave way to the Yuan, and his accounts opened Western eyes — for the first time — to the cultural treasure, wonder, and erudition of East Asia and its people. “Everyone who wants to know the diverse nations of men,” he wrote in Chapter 1 of the Franco-Italian version of his Travels, “and the diversity of the diverse regions of the world, take this book and read it.” Europe was abhorred when he described Kublai Khan, not as an uncivilized barbarian, but as a charitable, inclusive ruler, opening the Mongol empire to all religions. Proud Venice was stunned when their hometown boy described Hangzhou, China as “the most beautiful city on earth” and their King Facfur as a generous and altruistic champion of the poor. Unlike Columbus (who was inspired by Marco’s travels), Marco was no conqueror; he was not there with an agenda. He was no hardcore merchant (like his father and uncle); and he was no pilgrim, on a mission from the pope. He traveled the world as a nonjudgmental “wayfarer” with a thirst for knowledge of diverse peoples and “marvelous things.” That’s what he cared most deeply about, and that enlightened view, at the end of 17 years in Asia, is what he truly brought back from the Silk Road.
I recently saw a T-shirt that bears an image of Marco Polo as a wizened, tired old man, and it reads “I rarely sit by the pool any more.”
Can we blame him?