Breasts, blood and no brains

Does it matter that reviewers don’t like Netflix’s Marco Polo?

Marco Polo may be one of the most ambitious shows Netflix has produced thus far — but will it also be its biggest flop? One certainly might think so after reading a few reviews.

The streaming service is set to release the entire first season of the 13th-century explorer drama — ten episodes total — on Friday, but critics had advance access to a few episodes of the show, and they didn’t like what they saw. Here are a few examples:

Time‘s James Poniewozik had this to say about the drama:

Marco Polo […] feels less like precision targeting than a flurry of wildly fired arrows, the scattershot, overstuffed result of a ‘You Might Like…’ algorithm run amok. If you like Game of Thrones, and historical drama, and pay-cable softcore, and martial arts movies […]–and you want them crammed together, narrative sense be damned — you might like this gorgeous but ludicrous saga.”

And here’s The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman:

“It’s just a middling mess — something so average that a basic cable channel could have duplicated it without all the foreign travel for about $84 million less.”

Finally, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald:

“Full of blood and breasts, and generally devoid of brains, Marco Polo is the sort of project designed to appeal to the largest possible audience, which is probably why I can’t for the life of me imagine it appealing to anyone. The series is a sloppy, clattering mess.”

The question is: Does it matter that critics hate the show? I’m not only asking this because audiences and critics occasionally come to very different conclusions — just think of The Da Vinci Code, which was hated by most critics, but made more than $758 million at box offices worldwide.

Marco Polo’s fate could be an indicator of the validity of one of Netflix’s key strategies, which Poniewozik alluded to in his review. The company is famous for using data, and lots of it, to predict what its audiences will like. It is spending $150 million a year on content recommendation technology in an attempt to surface the best titles for each of its subscribers, and it is also using a lot of the engagement data it gathers on its platform to figure out which other titles it should license or produce itself.


Netflix executives have been careful in the past to stress that this kind of data doesn’t directly influence the screenwriting process, and the company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos has gone on the record to say that even buying originals is “a balance of intuition and analytics.”

But Sarandos apparently also isn’t afraid to use his gut (or maybe his data) against the vote of critics. The company stuck with its horror thriller Hemlock Grove for three seasons despite critics calling the show “terrible” and “a mess.”

Perhaps most revealing, Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt recently said that “there are no bad shows, just shows with small audiences.” Apparently, Netflix is betting that the audience for Marco Polo is big enough to warrant a $90 million investment.

26 Responses to “Does it matter that reviewers don’t like Netflix’s Marco Polo?”

  1. The Truth

    The show was absolutely horrible. I’m not sure what people found appealing about it, but there are a few good action sequences and beautiful panoramas between hours and hours of horribly boring dialog and bad acting.

  2. (I don’t speakl english) My and my fiance like it very much (we don’t like a lot of series), yes, it is not game of thrones, it doesn’t have a huge fantastic plot, it has more simple and way more sutile plots, but they are very well done. I’m in episode 6 and I’m thinking when I will be able to watch the rest. It isn’t huge as GOT, but it is very good, not like reviewers are saying (I don’t get the hate).

  3. Henry Nwobi

    Paid and professional critics have and leave garbage reviews. I don’t pay attention to they’re narrow minded views on what is good and what is not.

    Marco Polo was a great show. It’s actually why I got back on Netflix, I saw the preview on YouTube when it came out and started calling people up to use they’re Netflix. In the end i ended up paying half for a profile.

    Great show, only wished it had 12 episodes.

  4. This is definitely a case of critics not being on the same page as viewers. Their critiques are often borderline racist themselves. Their only good point is that they could have simply called it Khan or Mongolia or any other Asian reference instead of naming it after the one whitish character who so far is not the most interesting or central figure.

  5. Gerald Michels

    I don’t read reviews and I don’t pay attention to critics. I watch something and decide for myself. I’m really enjoying season one of Marco Polo. Should I stop watching because some reviewer/critic doesn’t like it? I think not. I’m looking forward to a season two.

  6. Gene Smolko

    After watching five episodes, I checked the reviews and was shocked, I expected rave reviews.. I am totally engrossed, the setting and acting are superb and the characters are complex and varied.

    I think what happened here was for some reason critics got miffed at some historical inaccuracies, who cares, lots of great shows have historical inaccuracies.

  7. I LOVED LOVED this show. We watched it three night sin a row. I found it as good as Game of Thrones, and possibly better because it was rooted in reality. I sure hope Netflix does not listen to the reviewers who are WRONG.

  8. This Mini-Series had the worst ending I’ve ever seen, and by the end I really didn’t care.
    I think I was more grateful that it was finally over. The last scene I just laughed at…

  9. Kris Tuttle

    Failure matters if NFLX insists that a real part of their business is developing original content that people want to see. But I agree that the “all at once” release does little to build ongoing viewership which is important. Plus it’s now pretty easy to watch stuff on Amazon Prime and I suspect there is pretty high overlap between Prime subscribers and Netflix subscribers.

  10. Glen Barrington

    It sounds perfect for the average 14 year old. Mostly for boys, but quite a few girls like this sort of thing too. It’s just like the tobacco companies, you got to get them addicted young.

  11. Yes, it does matter if TV critics universally don’t like a show. It’s a much more accurate measurement than film critics who have a very specific focus and are far more faux intellectual than a generally honest TV critic. Therefore it’s a horrible example to compare a movie (different medium than TV), made from a 5 year old very popular source material with an Oscar winning global star (Hanks) and a well know Oscar winning director (Ron Howard) with a show about a guy who’s been dead for 700 years whom most people only know from the backyard pool game they played as a kid.

      • Erik Schwartz

        As Netflix doesn’t discuss actual viewership we don’t really know how Hemlock Grove is doing. No one much is talking about it. I couldn’t get through more than 2-3 episodes.

        The answer to “does it matter” has to do with driving new subs and reducing churn. If Marco Polo (or Hemlock Grove or any Netflix original) does that, then it’s a success. If not, it’s a failure. If crappy reviews are reducing Marco Polo’s ability to drive new subs then the crappy reviews absolutely matter.

    • KevinSchimes

      To be fair, The Walking Dead was also pretty unpopular with critics until just this season. That didn’t stop the show from breaking almost every cable record. Netflix can produce a bad show critically without too much harm to them.

      I actually compare this show to TWD’s first season, because both focus more on the draw (the environments/cinematics in one and the zombies in the other) than the characters for now. If Netflix can turn toward the characters as it builds they’ll be pretty decently set by the time House of Cards ends for this to pick up its place in the Best Drama category.

  12. Devon Nullz

    Netflix is trolling so hard to make the rest of the world recognize that you don’t need to serialize TV programs under unconstrained bandwidth. I’d say they were beating a dead horse, but then I’ve been saying broadcast TV is a product of bandwidth constraints for eons.

    That said, they’re taking this strategy to the level of shooting themselves in the foot. A show like Breaking Bad more than doubled its audience in its final season, which it split into two halves and allowed fans to discuss, anticipate, etc. Netflix all-at-once model proves a point, but at the cost of getting zero audience build-up, zero feedback from viewers and the TV zeitgeist, etc.

    This is lunacy. It’s like running a Web or mobile service while getting user analytics only after the service has been shut down. Sooner or later NetFlix is going to have to give up their tirade and start acknowledging the reality of viewership and regular and frequent audience response.