Two television shows eased me through the coldest months of the pandemic. One was—do not smirk— the PBS remake of All Creatures Great and Small. That show is so utterly wholesome, James Herriot so gentle and decent, the human foibles presented with such kindness and on such a small, everyday scale, that watching it felt like a sigh of relief. The only quest was to live a life of integrity and compassion, and in the quiet simplicity of a 1930s village in the Yorkshire Dales, that pursuit felt both quaint and manageable. The other show was Lupin, and at first glance, it was 180 degrees different. The scale was international, the main character so elegant and extraordinary, he was almost a superhero. The challenges he confronted were complicated, perilous, breathlessly intense, and seemingly insurmountable.
Lupin is the captivating tale of a French thief, a master of disguise, a trickster—rewritten as a quest for redemptive justice. Assane Diop, who has modeled his life on that of the classic French thief Arsene Lupin, intends to clear his father’s name. A first-generation Senegalese immigrant, his father had no chance against the greed of a wealthy White man; falsely accused of stealing a rare necklace, the father was eventually found dead, hanging in his prison cell. His son intends to expose the con that framed him—by using a few cons of his own.
I was not the only one to love this show; in its first month, Lupin drew viewers from seventy-six million households, outdoing The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton. Now Netflix has released the second season, and I am in thrall all over again—even though my own world has opened up and life, vaccinated, no longer feels like an analogy to danger. Why does Lupin still feel cathartic?
One reason, I think, is that in its own way, Lupin is as gentle as All Creatures Great and Small. Omar Sy, the star, artistic producer, and inspiration for the show, didn’t want his kids watching him resort to violence, even in make-believe. Too many Black men are depicted as having no other resources. Diop has courage, daring, brilliance, creativity, inventiveness, adroit social skills, lightning reflexes, and a sense of humor; he can hog-tie villains or render them unconscious, but he does not kill or even injure them.
The show’s tension comes from historic injustice, shown by the powerlessness of a smart, decent Senegalese immigrant against a rich, corrupt White man. That resonates with every morning’s headlines. We are living in a time when racial hatred is virulent, the injustice more and more obvious, the abuses of power more brazen. But what turns Lupin into entertainment is the sang-froid with which Assane Diop acts. He uses his remarkable mind to anticipate, foil, and prevail, and though he is honest about his pain and struggle, he acts with confident ease, almost a lightness. He has taken matters into his own hands, which is refreshing in a time when we are so constrained and often find ourselves watching helplessly or waiting, fretting, and stewing. Well before the pandemic, we had become a bit whiny, accustomed to high-tech ease and material comfort, used to being able to get anything we wanted with a few clicks.
Diop has also gotten what he wanted, acquiring, Robin Hood-style, vast amounts of money and tech, not to mention enough theatrical supplies to keep the Royal Shakespeare Company set for years. But all of it is for a purpose. We do not see him lolling around playing with his high-tech toys or “strutting his stuff”—a phrase that inadvertently, appropriately, equates the person with whatever material goods they own. Lupin sees through such trappings. He uses his resources to blend in—with a janitorial crew at the Louvre or with ultra-wealthy auction-goers—reminding us along the way how often Black men are invisible. In disguise, he meets each person on their own terms, in their own world—a handy trick for any of us.
Though the show is dramatic, he creates no personal drama; he is so self-contained, he reminds me of the renegade American cowboy. What saves him from rugged, macho individualism are his motives, which all flow from those he loves—his father, his son, his estranged wife, his best friend. Their presence in his life lights him up, and he knows that. Sy’s charisma comes from his easy warmth, and a kindness that feels almost holy. I saw it in both Intouchables and Lupin, but I felt silly putting words to it until I read Chris Pratt’s remark that Sy was perfectly cast for Jurassic, because they needed “a sense of goodness to sell the idea of a real love.”
I think another reason the show is so satisfying is the quiet motif of Diop as a gentleman. Courteous, urbane, aware of what is required of him in any situation, attuned to the needs of others, ready to rise to any challenge, chivalrous in the deepest sense of the word. What we have seen this year in real life is not chivalry. We have seen people so caught up in their own drama, they refused to protect others by catching their own droplets in a simple piece of cloth. They preferred to spew. Meanwhile, scammers exploited the emotionally vulnerable and COVID-19 killed the physically vulnerable, all against a backdrop of mass shootings, men behaving badly, politicians abandoning civil discourse.
Finally, each episode of Lupin brings the joy of a man living by his wits and prevailing, in a clever and playful way. We do not do a lot of that. Most of us wind up corporate or in preexisting tracks, and entrepreneurs wind up obsessed by market share, niche, and social, and not with taking creative risks.
Do you have to be willing to live outside the law to live the way Diop does? You certainly have to be willing to be irreverent and self-reliant. But Diop is also extraordinary; the rest of us don’t have brains like his, let alone courage. Lacking his ability to “read the room” or “think outside the box,” we substitute clichés for the actual traits. It is too easy to become passive these days, with so much of our world opaque, manipulated by tech and money, locked away from our intervention. Is it any wonder that we are drawn to someone whose hope has not turned rancid, whose resolve has not been squashed?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.