East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

In the shadow of Arséne


And so finally the new Lupin TV series hit the screens, as a Netflix Original, and I spent a day watching it while my computer system was slowly grinding back to normal. Together with the fifth season of The Expanse, this was for me the highest expected show in the late2020/early 2021 season.
So, is it any good?

Short review: it is very good.

OK, now for the long version.

Lupin is a short series featuring the adventures of… ah, here’s the catch…

A lot of people (from what I saw) were very vocally shocked at the idea that the famous gentleman-thief would be portrayed by an actor of African origins, the excellent Omar Sy (who also acts as the show’s art director, and boy I want his clothes and his hats in particular … you can’t be Lupin without a hat – sorry Monkey Punch). I saw people decrying the excesses of “PC culture”, that forced the mercenary heads of Netflix to deface the “obviously white” character from Maurice Leblanc’s novels and turn him into a “SJW-pleasing” black man.
What next? Charlize Theron appearing in a queer remake of Die Hard?

But here’s the first very elegant twist in this story – Omar Zy does not portray Arséne Lupin.

The main character in the series is Assane Diop, a man who grew up reading Leblanc’s stories, and used them as his sort of personal guide as he grew up without a family. Because, here’s the catch, his father was falsely accused of a crime, and died in prison. Now Assane (whose name plays on Arséne, of course) is coming to take his revenge, and Lupin’s adventures will be the blueprint for his plan.

This is quite good, because it helps the writers update the Leblanc caper stories without stretching credibility, and setting the series in a world in which the Lupin stories are read, and are still popular with many readers. Indeed, this adds a fun twist to the plot, as the only investigator “getting” the Lupin angle is routinely mocked by his more “serious” colleagues.
This somewhat reminded me of the way in which the adaptation/update/twist was handled in the Japanese series Miss Sherlock. I liked a lot the way they did it there, and I like the way they did it here.

So this is a series about Arséne Lupin and about his influence on the life of some characters, and Lupin is still central to the story, as a sort of mentor to Assane.
In a revealing scene, young Assane hides a Lupin novel inside a Bible – Maurice Leblanc is his prophet, Lupin is his savior and father-figure, and Arséne Lupin, Gentleman Cambrioleur, is his way, his Tao, if you will.
This is evident from the trailer, and underscored by the series’ subtitle – In the Shadow of Arséne.

And I like it very much because, really, Arséne Lupin was, for my generation, through the wonderful TV series I mentioned in the past, a role model. I guess you can’t be a kid, meet Lupin on page or screen, and don’t go “this is what I am going to be!”
Netflix’s Lupin could really be a series about how adventure novels shape our lives – and it’s a colossal advertising campaign for the Maurice Leblanc novels.
(indeed my first thought when seeing the book in the first episode was … “Wait, is that a standard edition? How do I get one?”)

Metafictional concerns apart, the plot is tight – there is one minor slip in the first episode, but we can dismiss that considering the first episode remains one of the tighter, better constructed caper/heist things we’ve seen on a screen since the British show The Hustle was cancelled.
The writing is good, the characters engaging, the performances are excellent.
There is an overarching meta-plot, as Assane gets closer to the truth about his father’s death, and the police tighten their net around him, and if some of the cops are abysmally stupid… well, that’s part of the Arséne Lupin tradition, right?

Some have complained about the political agenda that’s slipped into the plot.
The show’s bad guy is a big business scumbag with political leverage and many skeletons in his closely-guarded closet (and of course he’s got an Italian name because… France, right?), and there are comments on race relations, the treatment of minorities and about colonialism sprinkled in the stories – always in a measured way, that works with the overall structure of the plot.
But in fact there was always a political angle to Lupin’s adventures – that might not be evident in the old Georges Descrieres series I grew up with, or in the Lupin III anime series, but was hard to miss in the novels, and in the 2004 movie featuring Romain Duris: Lupin’s long list of adversaries include aristocratic conspirators trying to seize the power by undermining democracy, rapacious tycoons and ambiguous cult figures, and the issue of the rise of Socialism and Anarchic factions was often part of the plots.
Arséne Lupin, even in his original Belle Epoque incarnation, always had a political agenda, even if he did not clobber you with it.
And if it seems the Netflix show does a bit of clobbering, maybe it’s just us, that have become more sensitive to these issues. Which is not bad in itself.

In the end, the series closes on a HUGE cliffhanger, leaving us wanting for more.
And we are in luck, as apparently a second season is underway.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “In the shadow of Arséne

  1. If you approve of it then I guess we’ll watch it. 🙂


  2. Finished and enjoyed it quite a lot.
    it often requires to suspend disbelief* and I would have preferred a more cynical and with less friends character, but who cares?
    Quotes are good (I am not a Leblanc’s expert, but thanks to “libri in pillole” youtube channel, I am studying), Omar Sy is extremely good and in the part and Assane’s tricks make me and madame radiocarlonia laughing and clapping our hands like children.
    Waiting for 2nd part!


    Why didn’t have they make a digital copy of the VHS and broadcast its content by web???

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the idea of going through official TV channels is lame – but the old lady journalist probably wants to go back in her old playing field, not work with some newfangled “kid’s tech”. Just my own rationalization, of course.
      And yes, we are all waiting for season 2.
      They are better make it fast 😀


  3. Watched the last episode yesterday. Started reading the first book right after. Cant wait for the second season.

    Liked by 1 person

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