Everything I say in this first paragraph I say with love, because the French Netflix show Lupin is genuinely fun as hell. But I can’t stop remembering a scene from the second episode, when the title character—played with winking irreverence by Omar Ry—manages to shake the police by disguising himself as a bike delivery man dressed head to toe in orange, then somehow floods the park where he’s under police surveillance with other bike delivery men in the same get-up. It’s reminiscent of the iconic climax from The Thomas Crown Affair, but while that scene only strained credulity a little (why didn’t they arrest all the other fake Thomas Crowns as collaborators?), this one is a howler. To accept it, you have to accept that:
1. He knew the police wouldn’t simply arrest him the minute he met in public with the victim of his robbery, which seems like the logical course of action.
2. He knew he would be able to escape them on his bike starting from a stationary position with his pursuers incredibly close by, resulting in a chase scene that sets a new standard for bumbling cops.
3. He somehow could arrange for the other bikers in the same outfit (presumably from an established French company) to be on scene at the perfect moment. Do they ever explain this part? Folks, they do not. The spectacle stands alone, take it or leave it.
Now, granted, even to bring this up is some mega-Debbie Downer content, and I apologize. I just feel it’s necessary to put this show in its proper context before I begin praising it in earnest. The fact is, the show’s directors and writers revel in cool set pieces set up by sleight-of-hand, but you must be warned that they absolutely do not care how they get there, and feel very little compunction to explain themselves when it’s all over. I can’t tell if it’s audacious or just kinda lazy, but it leaves gaping chasms where at least a semblance of reality should be. If you have that obnoxious part of your brain that balks at these narrative conveniences, sit down and settle your differences now, because to enjoy Lupin on its merits means suspending the hell out of all your various disbeliefs.
With that caveat out of the way, on to the good stuff: Lupin is a show about a boy named Assane who becomes a thief, and may have some identity crisis issues in that he seems to believe he is—and I mean “is” in a literal sense—a gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin from a series of stories by the writer Maurice Leblanc. There are some family issues at play; he and his father were Senegalese immigrants, and the old man was accused of stealing a valuable necklace when Assane was a child, which provided the seed for how his entire life unfolded. From that tragic backstory, a sort of comic book hero emerges, and his superpower is legerdemain: the artistry of the thief.
In style, Lupin bears some similarity to the BBC’s Sherlock, at least in the frenetic worship of cleverness that makes an hour-long show feel like 10 jam-packed minutes. Sherlock is the smarter show, Lupin the more outlandish, even though Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a wilder character by far. In both shows, though, the viewer is taken into the labyrinth of the mind, where the resolution of a thorny puzzle functions as the pounding impulse behind every plot device. With all its bells and whistles, Sherlock is still the more grounded show, and as mentioned above Lupin is never afraid to veer off the rails, but the pleasures of the unraveling mystery are the same, even if the protagonists operate on opposite sides of the law.
As with the recent crime hit from the other side of the Pyrenees, Money Heist, this show is awash in cliches. Lupin can somehow hack into every database in the universe, he’s got a nebbish friend who can make him gadgets and fake jewelry, and despite many people knowing his face (he doesn’t take pains to hide it), he’s “off the grid” and can’t be found by police. The execution of the deceptions themselves, though, are things of beauty, and worth the price of admission alone. There is something viscerally thrilling about watching a non-violent criminal outsmart the authorities, and the brain trust behind Lupin know exactly what they’re selling and juice the hell out of their product. In the end, it barely matters that none of this holds up to closer scrutiny, because the payoff is so sweet.
But it raises a few questions, most of them unanswerable, on the concept of how to watch shows that are entertaining without being capital-g Great. Or, pulling back, where to place them critically. A show like Lupin is more than the mindless entertainment that sates the masses—this isn’t a brain-dead CBS sitcom—but its ambitions are narrow in scope in the way it seeks to entertain without paying enough attention to the details that would make it great. Sherlock, I think, approached a kind of stylistic greatness early in its run, and as such will always be a more significant show. With Lupin, do we treat it as a qualified success for its compelling qualities, which pass the most important test of making you actually want to watch it? Or is it a failure because of what it might have been with a bit more skill at the helm? Is it sub-prestige television, or a very impressive guilty pleasure?
What these questions really ask, I think, is how to feel about these shows that operate in the shadow zone between prestige and schlock. This is probably a case of too much thinking in the presence of fun, but it seems to me that after the initial thrill has worn off, shows like Lupin leave you feeling just slightly strange. It was good, you think, but was it also a little insulting in the ways it made you ignore some dramatic red flags? Is it okay to just enjoy something that is wildly intelligent at parts and also, let’s confess, a little dumb in others? Are these shows nice little reprieves, or is a critic derelict in his or her duty in giving them a pass?
I don’t know the answers, but I do know that more and more shows seem to be asking the question. Many new productions seek out the wide halo of their prestige neighbors, but don’t really earn the distinction by hard work. To an extent, that can be read as its own sleight-of-hand; passing off the counterfeit as the real thing. In any case, this is all academic, and at base I can tell you that while Lupin strains and then shatters credulity at the best of times, it’s also a pretty great way to spend an hour, especially in a year when you take what you can get. Make of that conclusion what you will, but I think as long as we keep our wits about us, there’s nothing wrong with a little fun.
Lupin is currently streaming on Netflix.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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