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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"Lupin" - or if you want to get technical, "Lupin" - is a smart and twisty French series that's new to Netflix. It's about a young Parisian man named Assane who molds his life on classic French tales about a fictional gentleman thief and master of disguise named Arsene Lupin
AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: There's more to it, of course. Assane is the son of a Senegalese immigrant who died after being accused of a crime. We soon learn that what's really driving Assane's intricately plotted criminal adventures is a desire for revenge. I'm Aisha Harris.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Lupin" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: (Laughter).
WELDON: Here with me and Aisha is Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been a Minute. Hey, Sam. Ca va?
SANDERS: Oui, oui. I don't know. I'm trying. I'm sorry.
WELDON: Also, joining us from her home in New York is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri Choudhury. Ca va, Bedatri?
BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY, BYLINE: Ca va bien. Merci. Enchante. I hope I did that right.
WELDON: We're all winging it here.
HARRIS: Way better than me.
WELDON: Yeah, I'm working off of four years of American public high school education. All right. In "Lupin," Omar Sy plays Assane, who's seeking revenge against several people whom he believes conspired to falsely accuse his father of stealing a necklace 25 years ago, a necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. He's got a best friend played by Antoine Gouy, an ex-wife played by Ludivine Sagnier, a teenage son played by Etan Simon, and he's going up against the wealthy Pellegrini family, led by the monstrous Hubert, who is played with - I got to say - a lot of French mustard, really layering on the Dijon...
WELDON: ...Herve Pierre. And if you can find me a more French name than Herve Pierre, I will (speaking French). He also tangles with various detectives, one of whom - played by Soufiane Guerrab - begins to suspect that Assane's crimes are inspired by the stories of Lupin. Layered over all of this is the fact that Assane is a Black man, the son of an immigrant, something the series uses to address - lightly, it seems to me, but we can talk about that - issues of race and class in modern France.
Something folks should know from the jump is that the series we're talking about today is only five one-hour episodes long. And that's even stretching it because most episodes come in around 45, 47 minutes. The other thing to know is that that first season ends on a cliffhanger. Now, Netflix has announced that part two of "Lupin" - "Lupin" - will be released in summer 2021. Sam Sanders, let me start with you.
WELDON: Lupin - oui ou non?
SANDERS: Oui. So I've basically reached this point in pandemic where if Netflix tells me enough to watch anything, I'll watch it. And so I kept seeing Omar Sy's beautiful, smiling face saying, watch this show, watch this show. And I did. And I liked it, which surprised me. I think that, like, as soon as this show starts, you realize the plot, in every single way, is absurd. Like, none of this could ever happen. It's so implausible.
And then - I'm not sure how it happened - but there are two ways to watch this show if you're here in the States. You can watch it in French with the subtitles, or you can watch it overdubbed with horrible, cartoonish English. I got the English overdub version, which made me even love it more because, like, half of the joy of watching the show was seeing where this absurd plot would go, and the other half was just making fun of these people and their awfully English overdubs.
So, yeah, I enjoyed it. I think the show was wonderfully nonsensical, but it's delivered without any irony. Like, they're kind of playing it serious, which is cute. But I was thinking about what I enjoy perhaps most about the show, and it's got to be Omar Sy. He is so charismatic, photogenic, fun to watch. And watching a big, tall, handsome Black man be MacGyver-slash-Inspector-Gadget-slash-the-Pink-Panther is a thing I don't really see a lot, so I love that.
It's like, I've realized the past several years I've been watching storylines in the news where Black men are anonymous in the wrong ways. We are faceless statistics and death tolls and stereotypes. And this show, "Lupin" - "Lupin" - it lets a Black man be anonymous in all the fun ways. It was just delightful for me. So, yeah, thumbs up.
WELDON: Yeah, Sam, I agree. This series does really touch the third rail of culture. It does touch race and class in an interesting way, by talking about the anonymity of Black men or at least the perceived anonymity of them. And when you talked about the fact that it's really, really contrived and unbelievable, I mean, I was reminded of the words of our greatest American philosopher, John "Hannibal" Smith, of that contemporary Algonquin round table known as The A-Team, who said, I love it when a plan comes together. That's what this is. That's why we love heist movies.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yes.
WELDON: All the planning, the contingency planning, the fact that - the thing that defines Arsene Lupin originally is even when he loses, he wins.
WELDON: We just love seeing people being outfoxed. Aisha, what'd you think?
HARRIS: It is a oui for me as well. I...
HARRIS: I didn't realize how much I needed something like this at this moment. I love a good heist movie. I love a good action thriller where there's lots of disguises. And it's not really something I've indulged in too much over the pandemic. So I was actually like, oh, man, I need to get back into this. And now I want to watch a lot more foreign heist, thriller, action shows and movies. But it did take me a little while at first. I'd say the first episode for me, it felt like there were just a lot of cliches about heists. And, you know, there's the plan - and it happens really quickly, like, within the first 10 minutes. There's not really much of a buildup. It's just like, OK, we're doing this heist.
HARRIS: And then the way it unfolds, I thought, was really, really interesting. And once I realized that, like, the heist was the first episode but the rest of it is more disguise and sneaking in and out of, like, apartments and tricking the police and doing all of these nefarious things but for the vengeance of his father - I thought it was really, really interesting the way they did that. And to sort of build on this idea of him being able - to this Black man being able to play disguise in these ways. I think what's really interesting is that, with the exception of one scene, he's not doing anything drastic to his appearance. He's over six feet tall. He's very distinctive. And yet...
SANDERS: And he's beautiful, like gorgeous (laughter).
HARRIS: And he's beautiful.
WELDON: He's also beautiful.
HARRIS: And he's, like, very built. Like, there's no way - like, he would stand out in most places, like no matter where he is.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah. I would definitely remember him if I met him once.
SANDERS: Same. Same, same.
HARRIS: But somehow, he's able to, at one point, you know, switch places with a prisoner who is way shorter than him...
HARRIS: ...Is, like, five shades lighter than him. And no one notices. And I think using that as a device is really interesting. Now, one thing I did notice while watching it was the fact that, you know, we get a lot of flashbacks to - that kind of piece together why he's doing what he is now, to when he was a kid and what happened to his father. And I believe we're told early on that his mother - his father's been widowed. So his mother passed away. So there's no Black woman figure there. There's also no Black woman anywhere else in the show. And, you know...
HARRIS: ...We see his relationship with his best friends from elementary school, middle school, who is Benjamin Ferel played by Antoine Gouy. I think I pronounce that correctly. And then, also, his ex-wife, who he now has a child with, Claire, who we also met when they were kids. And you see he has all these connections to white people. But there's no Black women anywhere. And I found that interesting, not even, like, on the police team. So I kind of hope when the second half drops that they do explore that more because I do think there is something interesting for someone who was young and, basically, you know, once he was orphaned, adopted - or not adopted. But basically, he had a benefactor. And what it's like to grow up in that world and not have any Black women in it, I would have liked to see that sort of explored.
WELDON: True. Yeah.
HARRIS: But overall, I enjoyed it.
WELDON: Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, I'm not sure the flashbacks worked, especially for me. I just was less interested in the flashbacks than what was going on in the contemporary things. What about you, Bedatri?
CHOUDHURY: What I really liked about - liked the most about the series is the pacing. I mean, you know, it begins with a car crashing into the Louvre. How do you, like, top that out?
SANDERS: And yet they do.
CHOUDHURY: And yet they do. And - which is what I really liked, you know? I was a little apprehensive that it's going to be a damp squib after that. I mean, because...
CHOUDHURY: ...What happens after that? But, you know, what I really like about it is that it's not the kind of crime thriller or heist series which gives you anxiety, which is like, oh, my God. I can't sleep. I can't eat. I have to see what happens. It's not that intense. But it still manages to, like, keep that little carrot dangling so that you keep coming back for the next episode. And, yeah, I mean, I agree with Aisha. Like, you know, A, there are no Black women, which I would have loved to see more of and his interaction with them. But also, the women that there are in the series, they just speak so little. And they just, like, occupy such little space. And it's all with respect to Assane as a central character. And all their relationships are kind of, like, defined by him. So yeah, I would have loved to see more of the women talk and, you know, occupy narrative space in general. And also, because, like, the women seem to be the only uniformly not-racist characters in the series.
WELDON: Interesting. You know, that might be an issue of overcorrecting on their part because he's not Bond, right? He's not depicted in the series as guzzling martinis or bedding ange nus. He doesn't have a license to kill. There's very little blood in the series, actually. He does have - what surprised me - a very close, surprisingly tender male friendship. We see him, again and again, struggling to overcome his intimacy issues with his ex-wife and his son. And most fascinating to me was he becomes close friends with an older woman whose work he admires. That is Fabienne, played by Anne Benoit. And they take pains to show - because you first think, oh, he's using her to get something that he needs. But he is sincerely in awe of her. And even when he does something particularly unlikable - like, there's this one moment where he robs an old lady. It's made clear that her wealth was plundered from Africa in the beginning. (Laughter) So you kind of give it a pass.
WELDON: When the show was firing on all cylinders, I was reminded of that first series of "Sherlock," where I was just like, where has this been all my life, you know? And as Sam said, none of these stories work unless everything goes off like clockwork, which is not how life works. It requires this immense suspension of disbelief, where characters make choices that the series wants you to think are inevitable. But, of course, they aren't. There's a lot of contrivance here. So there is a tremendous satisfaction, as you write, Bedatri, in watching all these dominos fall. But the thing that the series does well is it will show you that all those dominoes you watched being set up are not the only dominoes. There's this other whole room full of dominoes that we're going to tell you about, like, 35 minutes in.
WELDON: Again, it's a contemporary take, which means he can't just be a master criminal who is always six steps ahead of everybody because the thinking there is, oh, it'll get boring. I'm here to tell you it wouldn't. I would watch it for days because I just love that. But they humanize him. They want to give him something to care about, something to be invested in. So we get the ex-wife and the son. And as the series goes on, he starts making mistakes, small ones first and then big ones. And it makes - he makes a huge one in an episode involving a kidnapping that I just got angry at because it just seemed way out of character, not something he would do. But I did find myself checking my phone during those family scenes. What did you guys think?
HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah. I do think that that was one of the cliches that I could have done without. You know, the vengeance of his own father is, to me, enough steam and enough for him to work off of. Like, I don't necessarily need him to be, you know, struggling to connect with his son. But I also think the way it wraps up towards the end of the first half, without giving too much away, like, it does, make me wonder, OK, maybe this could be interesting going forward, their relationship. But, yeah, the flashbacks also didn't really work too much for me. But that's also a problem that I've had with a lot of shows that I really, really love. I think the flashback has become sort of a crutch in some ways. I also had an issue with it...
HARRIS: ...To some extent, in "I May Destroy You." I think it...
HARRIS: ...Sometimes it just felt like it was trying too hard to create all these parallels. And I don't always need tons and tons of backstory like that. Like, give me a scene or two. But I don't need this, like, running thread that parallels the show. It just feels a little bit lazy to me. And I think we still get so much out of Omar Sy. Like, again, I can't say enough about how great he is because he is just able to - even in the way he's able to shift his body, which, again, is why in some ways he's so good at disguise. Like, sometimes all it takes is for him to put on a pair of glasses and, like, sort of sway his body in a way to make himself look like - he sometimes shrinks his large frame to make himself seem a little bit more, like, demure and nerdy or awkward. And I love that. And those are the things that I love and I think add to the character in a way that the flashbacks and, like, the family scenes don't for me.
CHOUDHURY: And also, like, his gait and agility is - it's that - you know, we don't see Black men getting that kind of...
SANDERS: Freedom of movement even.
CHOUDHURY: Yeah, freedom of movement, even grace. You know, I'll call it grace.
CHOUDHURY: Like, you know, he is, like, sliding down the roofs and stuff. It's beautiful. You - it feels like ballet sometimes.
SANDERS: I kind of have a larger question after watching this show with the English overdub and the French with subtitles. It makes me wonder what this reveals about, you know, Netflix's ongoing grand strategy for, like, global domination. It seems as if they might have made, like, an international blockbuster of sorts that comes from France. And that seems like a big deal. What do we think this show and its success reveals about what Netflix wants to make going forward?
WELDON: I think they want to make - what is the word? - money.
WELDON: I think they just want to be, as you say, global domination. And when there is so much intellectual property out there. And we're willing to do what Bong Joon-ho asked us to do, was to, you know, just suck it up already and (laughter) watch things with subtitles.
SANDERS: Watch with subtitles. Yeah.
CHOUDHURY: I definitely think that - I mean, I'm not sure of what Netflix's plans are. But I think what it's doing is it's changing the kind of TV Americans like to watch and want to watch and have been watching. There has always been a kind of a pushback against, quote, unquote, "foreign content." And I think it's nice to see that opening up, people becoming more open to stuff that is not in English. But also, I think, you know, going back to the fact that, you know, this is a heist movie, this is a crime thriller, this is a comedy, this is a family drama, I think global producers are also trying to put in something for everyone so that, you know, it becomes - the final product is something that appeals a little bit to everyone. So I think that's an interesting way of, like, kind of merging genres. And I guess Netflix has been doing that for a while. So that's interesting how that's evolving.
WELDON: It's already on track to be the most watched miniseries on Netflix. It's already, I think, taken over "Queen's Gambit," which is remarkable. And it's a good thing that it happens to be a good show.
Tell us what you think about "Lupin." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @PCHH. When we come back, it will be time to talk about what is making us happy this week. So come right back.
SANDERS: (Laughter) You're very good at that, Glen.
HARRIS: I hope our French listeners don't hate us.
SANDERS: Oh, they're going to hate it.
WELDON: No, no, no, no. Hate me, Aisha, they would just hate me.
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WELDON: Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. It's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what's making us happy this week. Aisha, what is making you happy this week?
HARRIS: Well, every once in a while, you don't know what to watch. And you decide to take a chance on something you might not have heard of and hope for the best. And recently, that happened to me. I was trying to figure out what to watch with my partner. And he found this movie that I somehow had never heard of that was released on VOD last summer, I believe. And it's called "Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison" It was written and directed by Romany Malco, who you might know from "40-Year-Old Virgin," "Think Like A Man," who I remember from "Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story," a VH1 (laughter) movie from, like, 20 years ago.
HARRIS: And this is his directorial debut. It's a mockumentary-style film. And it's based off of a character named Tijuana Jackson who Romany Malco has been, you know, working and creating over the past, like, decade or so in YouTube series shorts. And (laughter) the character is an inmate who comes out of prison and is followed around by this college student who is making a documentary short. And he is very overconfident and is determined to become a very famous motivational speaker. It is very lowbrow, vulgar humor. So it's not something to watch with your kids.
CHOUDHURY: Love it.
HARRIS: (Laughter) But I really enjoyed it. I was surprised by how smart it is. He is very, very good at depicting this super just, like, unself-aware character who has all this positivity despite all of the really bad things that are happening in his life. Regina Hall is also fantastic, playing her...
SANDERS: Oh, then I'm in.
HARRIS: She plays...
WELDON: That easy.
HARRIS: If that didn't work, yes, Regina Hall is in it. She plays his parole officer and also, like, his childhood best friend, who they might have a little thing with each other. There are some, you know, prison sex jokes that are a little dated. And it's like, oh, are we still making these? But overall, I think it's really smart. And it's a sharp critique of the prison industrial complex in a way that I haven't seen before. It takes things in a direction that you won't expect. And I laughed throughout pretty much the whole thing. So I highly recommend watching it. It's "Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison." And you can rent it on VOD.
WELDON: Thank you, Aisha. That sounds fantastic. Sam Sanders, what's making you happy this week?
SANDERS: Yeah. So I had a long drive this past weekend, which meant that I was frantically searching for a new podcast to listen to while driving. And I found a good one. I've devoured a few episodes of this new podcast from WBUR called "Anything For Selena." This is yet another piece of content about the Latin megastar who was killed way too soon, Selena. I knew her as a south Texan growing up. She was larger than life. And her death, I can still flashback to that day and how heavily it seems like everyone I knew took it.
And the myth of Selena in popular culture is very complicated. She has been this enduring figure, almost like Aaliyah after she passed away. But over time, Selena and what she represents has kind of been flattened and reduced to, like, this Latina Barbie. And you kind of even saw notes of that in the latest Netflix show about her life. But this podcast, which is hosted by Maria Garcia, the journalist, it brings so much more nuance to who Selena is and what she means.
And this one works because it is equal parts memoir and, like, biography of Selena. So all throughout the podcast, you see Maria comparing her life to Selena's, talking about how Selena being exactly who she was allowed Maria to be who she is. And there's this wonderful interlude in the episode where she interviews Selena's father, where she talks candidly about what her life was like growing up with her dad, an immigrant. And it was this deeply poignant, layered, delicate bit of a podcast that surprised me. And I don't think I've heard a podcast like it in some time. And it made me rethink a figure in the culture that I already think I know a lot about, Selena, and see her in some new, fresh ways. So I highly recommend it. It is called "Anything For Selena."
WELDON: Thank you, Sam. That sounds great. Bedatri, what is making you happy this week?
CHOUDHURY: This week, like every other week, cake is making me happy.
CHOUDHURY: Sugar is making me happy.
CHOUDHURY: I love to bake. I have friends who bake. And all of us have been very proactive with that in the new year. I'm a huge fan of the chef Sohla El-Waylly, who is not a condescending cook. She doesn't use these big, broad French words nobody can pronounce. But, like, she has this encyclopedic knowledge. And she is, like, this perfect teacher who sits you down, teaches you the science of it very simply and patiently and then, like, totally cheers you on with so much love as you go on to make your own bakes. It's beautiful.
So she has a show called "Off Script With Sohla." And she decided to make an episode dedicated to making a basic pound cake and then flying with it and experimenting with flavors. I mean, she says a snickerdoodle loaf cake with a cinnamon sugar icing and a cinnamon sugar swirl is possible.
CHOUDHURY: So I knew that's literally my recipe to happiness. TLDR, watch the video even if you're not a baker because Sohla is awesome. The title of the show is "Off Script With Sohla."
WELDON: Thank you, Bedatri. You know, I love that happy because it is on-brand. The last time you were here, you were on for "The Great British Baking Show," and that is staying ruthlessly on-brand. And I admire the hell out of it.
And speaking of staying ruthlessly on-brand, what's making me happy this week is Rachel Bloom of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" fame. She's got a new book. It came out in November of last year. It's a memoir called "I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are." And, you know, she's a young woman, so it focuses on her childhood - being bullied, dealing with OCD, discovering musical theater as a savior and working her way up in New York and L.A. in their comedy scenes and getting her own TV show. It's funny. It's very candid. It's very her.
And I know what y'all are thinking. OK, yes, Glen, but how does this memoir compared to, say, "The Diary Of Samuel Pepys" or Boswell's "Life Of Johnson (ph)"? And I'll just say, more poop, for one thing. There's a lot in here about pooping and sex. So be advised.
HARRIS: Talk about on-brand (laughter).
WELDON: Totally on-brand.
WELDON: Now, you could just read the book yourself like a chump, but why would you? Because Bloom reads the audiobook herself. And she reads with this kind of really open expressiveness. She's got great comic timing. Plus - not for nothing - there's a little mini musical in the middle of it that is fully scored. And so, you know, just get the audiobook. "I Want To Be Where The Normal People Are" by Rachel Bloom. And that is what is making me happy this week.
If you want links for what we recommended, plus some more recommendations exclusive to our newsletter, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. That brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me @ghweldon. You can follow Aisha @craftingmystyle. You can follow Sam @samsanders. And you can follow Bedatri @Bedatri. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy @jessica_reedy and producer Candice Lim @thecandicelim. You can follow producer Mike Katzif @mikekatzif That's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you may or may not be bobbing your head to right now. I don't know your life. Thanks to all of you for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you.
CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much.
BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY AND SAM SANDERS: (Speaking French).
SANDERS: Yeah, there we go.
CHOUDHURY: Jinx, Sam.
WELDON: Jinxed - totally jinxed.
WELDON: Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all next week.
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