More than one reviewer has called Lupin (new on Netflix), “the first great series of 2021.” It’s the second week of the year, for heaven’s sake. But there’s some merit in the assertion. It’s a magnificent concoction and, with an uncanny timing, it is captivating in a way that connects to the time we live in.
In the wonderfully intricate and propulsive five-episode series (in French with English subtitles), nobody called “Arsène Lupin” actually appears. That figure, a “gentleman thief”, created in a 1905 novel by the French writer Maurice Leblanc, is an ideal and an inspiration. Mainly he’s an inspiration for central figure Assane Diop (Omar Sy), a Frenchman of Senegalese background who pulls off a spectacular heist that’s a big, thrilling caper and is just the start of his revenge against a rich white family that caused his father’s death.
One reason for those ecstatic reviews is the sheer charm of Assane. When we first meet him, we’re led to believe he’s a janitor who happens to have a cleaning job at the Louvre. Hassled by thugs to whom he owes money, he suggests a plan to steal a necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette. The thugs think it’s a plausible heist and the action starts. But Assane Diop isn’t who he seems. As we watch – mostly transfixed; this is a beautifully paced series – we learn that he’s both a master of disguise and an extremely cunning provocateur.
Power and race are the twin engines of the underlying plot beneath the heist story. As a Black man in France, Assane knows how to use racist presumptions for his own benefit. He is always underestimated and often barely seen, in a white society that assumes all Black men are the same. He simply tricks others by playing on their false assumptions. Also, he’s very tall, and can be a tad intimidating when he wants to be. This is all handled with exquisite cleverness, but never becomes a dogmatic plot point.
What we get here is a delicious retaliation story. In the deftly done time-switching scenes we learn that Assane’s father was an employee of the super-rich Pellegrini family. They treated the boy well but with extreme condescension. His dad was allowed to take books from the family library for the boy and his choice of that first book was the one about the thief Arsène Lupin. Things went awry when Assane’s dad was accused of stealing a necklace. Two decades later, Assane has the intention of putting things right.
The series was created by English writer George Kay in collaboration with French writer François Uzan. Kay wrote several episodes of Killing Eve and Lupin has some of that show’s buoyancy and wit. It’s also a thrilling crime drama. And yes, likely one of the best of the year.
One personal footnote to it. I covered the opening game of the 2002 World Cup in Seoul. It was between World Cup and European champion France, and World Cup debutantes Senegal. And it was a historic upset. Senegal thoroughly outplayed France and won 1-0, the goal scored by the tall and immensely skilled Papa Bouba Diop, a man who died recently, and fit the description, “gentleman thief.”
Also airing this weekend
Miss Scarlet and The Duke (Sunday, PBS, 8 p.m. on Mystery) is another new take on the Victorian London crime drama. This time it’s done as a lightweight feminist take. Kate Phillips plays Eliza Scarlet, who inherits her father’s private-detective agency and attempts to continue his work, with the reluctant assistance of a Scotland Yard chap called The Duke (Stuart Martin). Sumptuous and funny it is meant to be, this confection. And there’s indeed some wit as a small army of bearded older men are fooled by Eliza’s politeness and feigned delicacy. She’s as tough as nails. There is a curious kind of sexual tension being cooked up constantly, and as entertainment the series – based on seeing one episode – is droll, not deep, and good fun for fans of English period-piece mysteries.
Five Bedrooms (Sunday, W, 10 p.m.) is new and has acquired a following on the U.S. streaming service Peacock. An Australian production, it might be best described as a new spin on the Friends format. Here, the group of friends who live together start out as strangers, more or less. They are a group of thirtysomethings and older, all fed up with something in their lives as singles. So they buy a sprawling house and form a family of sorts. At its centre is real estate agent Ainsley (Katie Robertson), who also is the show’s narrator, and is secretly pining for a married work colleague. More bittersweet drama than outright comedy, it’s no masterpiece but has considerable offbeat bounce to it.
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