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.