It’s crazy how much good TV is being made these days, both on traditional broadcast TV channels and Internet streaming services. I can’t keep up with all the things people tell me I, “really have to see.” I can’t even keep up with all the things people tell me to watch on Netflix alone, but I have been trying.
Last month I was able to make it through the second season of Marco Polo (2014-). It’s questionable how much of Polo’s version of his own life was accurately recorded by him in the first place but the show also takes a great deal of liberties with the historical record. You could say that it is a fictionalization of a fictionalization, but that is often the case and it sure looks good. My big complaint is that the show really should be called, “Kublai Khan,” because Kublai (Benedict Wong) is the most interesting character and the principle driver of events. I don’t think this fact has been lost on the Netflix team, considering that the ad they emailed me on July 1 to announce the return of the series centered on Kublai with Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) looking on from the background.
You can also see this reflected in the trailer for season 2, which doesn’t even pretend to be about Marco, the way the first season’s trailer fools you into thinking the story centers around him.
I noticed a similar problem with Narcos (2015-). Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is by far the best and most important character in that show but you have to suffer through DEA Agent Steve Murphy’s (Boyd Holbrook) boring storyline and horrible voiceover narration to get to the worthwhile parts. It makes me think that Netflix is afraid to have any culturally different shows without tethering them to a white man.
Any husker du, regardless of my slight misgivings, I enjoyed Marco Polo enough to recommend it. It’s no Game of Thrones (2011-), maybe Vikings (2013-) or Rome (2005-2007) would be a better comparison, but it does have a fantasy world charm to it. The sets and the costumes (the mise en scène) and many of the visual effects are stunning, with some compelling characters to boot. But your next binge-worthy series really needs to be Stranger Things (2016-).
If you have fond memories of the 80s, or any borrowed nostalgia for them, you’ll love it. Many people, including Stephen King, have said that it plays off (or rips off) Stephen King’s work, but there’s also E.T. (1982), Goonies (1985) and more going on in this show; including older influences, like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). The great thing is that it’s not just a cheesy, slapped together and completely predictable recreation of the 80s; it’s a really well done production that’s retro and modern at the same time. There’s also some good use of music – from pop hits like, “I melt with you,” that everyone knows, to more obscure stuff, like Joy Division – which is often critical to making a good show, great.
Of course, nothing’s perfect, and the one small problem I have with Stranger Things is the way it feeds off, and into, the conspiracist mindset. I know, it’s just a show, and vast, unrealistic conspiracies are a staple of twenty first century television, but that doesn’t mean that they are simply entertainment, free of any consequences. I think a lot of people are heavily influenced by the counterfactual conventions of mass media, without fully realizing it. But why pick on Stranger Things any more than the rest? Why not just enjoy it for what it is, right?