The French adore their pop culture but they've never been the best at exporting it. Take the case of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman thief created by novelist Maurice Leblanc in 1905. Lupin's adventures spawned countless French books, movies and TV series, yet until a few months ago, most people I know had never even heard of him.
That changed with the arrival of the Netflix series Lupin, a whooshingly energetic international hit whose second season drops on June 11. Created by British TV writer George Kay, this French series does for the genius Parisian thief what the show Sherlock did for the world's greatest consulting detective. It makes him contemporary. Kay has taken a pop franchise that felt a bit musty and given it a 21st century twirl — its hero is now Black, not white.
The charismatic Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, the son of a falsely imprisoned Senegalese immigrant who gave him the Arsène Lupin novels to read as a boy. Using them as a kind of instruction manual, Assane has grown up to become a criminal virtuoso and a master of disguise who, like Robin Hood or Roger Moore in The Saint, breaks the law but manages to remain on the side of the angels. He and his longtime love, Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), have a teenage son, Raoul, whom they both adore.
Season 1 began with Assane pulling off a dazzling heist at the Louvre. He hopes that this robbery will help flush out the criminals who framed his father. It does, and as the cops breathe down his neck, Assane keeps pursuing new leads, a process that requires assorted jailbreaks and kidnappings. These shenanigans involve everyone from a corrupt police bigwig to an embittered investigative reporter to Hubert Pellegrini, a sinister mogul played with scuzzy relish by Hervé Pierre.
As Season 2 starts, the net is growing ever tighter around Assane. Not only has one of Pellegrini's thugs kidnapped his son, but he's been tracked down by a cop who's also a big fan of Arsène Lupin. Once the bad guys also begin putting the squeeze on Claire, it seems impossible that Assane can get away from everyone who's after him.
But, of course, we know he will. One reason Arsène Lupin became popular in the first place is that he's an enjoyable fantasy of shapeshifting brilliance. The show offers us the pleasure of watching Assane getting out of seemingly inescapable situations by slapping on a phony mustache, doing some mysterious computer trick, or pulling off a ridiculously complicated plan that requires 10 things to go right — which, of course, they all do. This isn't a show for die-hard realists. It's a confection that offers speed, cool settings, good acting and a very winning performance by Sy, a big, handsome man who exudes such warmth, benevolence and spirit that we're always on his side.
Now, changing the race of a well-known hero is tricky. If you want a Black James Bond, for instance, it's not enough simply to cast, say, Idris Elba. You must either pretend that his race wouldn't matter at all at Eton and in Her Majesty's Secret Service — which would be whitewashing — or you have to find a good way of making Bond's Blackness part of the story.
In updating the Lupin saga, Kay grasped that having the hero be Black would actually make the story richer and more of our moment. For starters, the show plays on the fact that Black people are so often invisible to the white majority. One reason Assane's disguises work so well is that, when he dresses up as a janitor or delivery man, the people he's fooling don't see him as an individual who matters. He's merely part of the background.
And though it wears its politics very lightly, Lupin is shot through with an awareness of race, be it a bigoted store owner trying to ruin the young Assane or an old woman prattling on about the glories of colonialism. It's no accident that the villainously racist Pellegrini hides his gangsterism behind a patriotic foundation that supposedly champions multiculturalism.
Nor is it an accident that the cop who grasps the connection between Assane and the original Lupin is himself of Moroccan descent. Without making a big point of it, Lupin embraces the irony that, in their love and knowledge of France's great gentleman thief, these two cultural outsiders are actually more French than the French. And in what may be an even more revealing irony, it's the Black Lupin who the world now knows.