Quick take: Lupin, a French series starring Omar Sy, is five episodes, ranging from 42 to 52 minutes long, which are inspired by the legend of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief. While the show is a structural mess, the acting is wildly uneven and even the basic plotlines have quasi-ridiculous outcomes, it is still somehow compelling. Most of the success is due to the magnetism and presence of Sy, who eats the screen.
They’ll write that it bobs and weaves, which it doesn’t.
They’ll write that it’s a reinvention of the heist genre, which it most certainly is not.
Lupin is the story of a man on a search for vengeance against the patriarch of a 1% family who framed his father years before. To tell this story, the show employs the oft-used trick of flashbacks, and has a real knack for jumping to another era at the exact moment when you become comfortable with the one you’re watching.
Sy, an actor with charisma to burn, singlehandedly saves the show. Somehow, you get so enthralled by his performance as lead character Assane Diop, that you just kind of blindly accept some very egregious errors, casting mistakes, plot contrivances and story points which should be more than enough of a critical mass to sink a better show. That’s not to say that the show isn’t charming at times, or doesn’t have cool scenes – it certainly does, it’s just that if you take that extra mental leap to truly analyze some of the choices, it wrecks the gentle alchemy of the experience. So: my suggestion is to just sit and enjoy. Don’t look too deeply and you’ll have a blast watching Lupin.
When we first meet Diop, he’s a nobody. An unseen janitor with a million dollar smile and the taste in Louvre jewels to match. Something’s rotten in Denmark and it doesn’t take long to realize that he’s working at the Louvre to case the joint.
But the Louvre? Come on, guy! Why not start with something easier, like the Tower of London or Fort Knox? Nope. Diop has his eye on a particular score and he builds an entire persona around it to make the whole thing work, going so far as to be a Method actor and stay in janitor mode outside the Louvre to lure some bigger fish to the fish fry.
In the course of this whole setup, we see that Diop has the best hands since The Artful Dodger and can fight like Guile in Street Fighter. He’s got Bruce Lee quickness. Dude’s a cat in human form. Ahem, a gentleman cat.
And as the story plays out, we see that all of those skills are situational. They don’t seem to work all the time. For example, for much of the story, Diop is trailed by the rented thug of his archrival and when he sees him, Diop runs for his life. The Thug looks to be about fifty-eight, weighs about 138 pounds wringing-wet and smokes three packs a day. Diop could clothesline him into the next century if he chose, but no. The show says this guy is a threat, so Diop behaves as if he is. This is the thug. You know he’s a bad guy because he wears an overcoat from the 1980s and a camouflage ascot. How gauche. No proper French thug would be caught dead in a passé outfit like that.
But the contradictions don’t stop there.
Diop can set up a state-of-the-art interrogation facility in a government building in minutes, but he can’t copy a Betamax videotape. Seriously: one of the huge plot points, really the turning of the whole story, is because Sy’s character acquires a videotape, knows how to upload some of it to Twitter as a tease, but somehow, some way, doesn’t make a digital copy of the data. He hands it to a bad guy and the bad guy just walks off with it and Diop is like OH POO.
I laughed out loud. I was like, you’re shitting me. This cleared development? Hoooo boy. Little too much fromage at that last story meeting. My goodness.
Diop can figure out a way to break into the Louvre, but not the private residence of his archrival, Hubert Pellegrini, a guy who looks like they took a train vagabond and dressed him at a J.C. Penney fall sale. Check out this hombre.
This is your big bad? That guy looks like he’s three all-you-can-eat shrimp platters at Red Lobster and two gallbladder stones from a forced retirement anyway. He looks like if you aged F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri by 40 years and fed him on a breadstick and fondue diet.
The only superpower he seems to have is paying a geriatric henchman to threaten old ladies and to hold his cigarette backwards and from the bottom, like it’s a wedge of bruschetta.
Diop’s personal life is no better. You’ll see a ton of images with Diop in a cool face-chair. Some production designer had a field day with that chair because it’s featured in basically every ad for the show. Look at that promo image for season two!
That’s right. More chair.
I hope they at least gave the chair a name on set, since it’s basically a character in its own right. Something like Sebastien. Or Merle.
Diop has a son, Raoul, but he has more chemistry with the chair. That’s not something you focus on a lot, the chemistry between parent and child on a show, but the only reason we notice it here is because the connection is such a miss. Assane and Raoul are not believable at all as father and son, going so far as to have Assane say “I’m not into it” when asked if he’s going to celebrate his son’s birthday. I’m not into it. Is that a French thing? Optional fatherhood? Because I have four children of my own and I wish I had know this a while ago. It would have saved me hours upon hours of my life wearing a stupid hat and handing out quarters to rambunctious seven-year-olds at Chuck E. Cheese.
Raoul’s mother, Claire, played marvelously by Ludivine Sagnier, is Assane’s soulmate. Except that he cheats on her. I guess maybe that’s another cultural oddity. I remember when Steve Martin was locked up in a French jail in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he begged the French chief of police to cut him a break, saying, “she caught me with another woman! You’re French! You understand that!” And without missing a beat, the chief, Andre, says “To be with another woman, zat is French. To be caught? Zat is American.”
But the contradictions keep coming. Diop can steal Faberge Egg-level items but is short on cash for child support.
A murderer follows him and his family to kill him and Diop thinks the family is safe when he traps the murderer in a room and locks him in.
Diop reads copiously and is seen as a brilliant academic, but is also sophomoric enough to be extremely status-conscious and to say things like “this is the restaurant” in an effort to impress a younger Claire. The very crux of Assane Diop’s grievance involves his father, Babakar Diop (Fargass Assandé) and that whole plot line is woefully underdeveloped as well. His father’s death, and the half-assed, needle-in-a-haystack way Assane uncovers the truth gave me anxiety. But Babakar is, objectively, an amazing name.
Diop is pursued throughout the series by two bumbling asshat Keystone Cops who report to a crooked commissioner on the take. Only one cop, a junior detective, figures out Assane’s methodology. It happens like ten minutes into the first episode and when he tries to explain it to the Keystone Cops, they laugh at him and mock him for the next five episodes.
In the end, it’s a borderline miracle that anyone enjoyed this show. Even the sleight of hand, which is so remarkable, is handled in a ham-fisted way. You’ll see a scuffle and then, later, in slo-mo, you’ll see footage of how, in the midst of it, unchecked and unseen, Assane reached into the man’s pocket and stole his keycard, his gold necklace and his appendix. It’s such a tired-ass delivery mechanism for the reveal. It feels like it was shot for elderly viewers who have trouble following plots. OHHHHH SO THAT’S HOW HE DID IT! CLEVAH!
Despite all of it, Sy is a superstar, and somehow the show is compelling and you find yourself still watching. You click through the end credits and skip the intro and before you know it, the five episodes of Lupin season one are over, with a cliffhanger based on the true dumbest conundrum you’ve ever seen. Like Bad Guy 101 kind of shit. And then you find yourself Googling “when is Lupin season 2?”
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the mellifluous beauty of the French language. Maybe it’s the animal magnetism of Omar Sy himself. Maybe it’s all of the above. But Lupin concocts some true mysticism and manages to stink up the joint in just about every way imaginable and yet leaves you, hat in hand, hoping for more.