Anybody who claims to have foreseen the sweeping, worldwide success of the Netflix series “Lupin” is probably engaging in a bit of revisionist history.
When the first five-episode installment dropped, on Jan. 8, the show’s team hoped that “Lupin” would do well enough in its home country of France, where the title — a reference to a popular hero of classic early-20th-century novels — would at least ring a bell, and where its star, Omar Sy, regularly tops polls of most popular celebrities.
“At first we focused only on finding a story that would resonate with our subscribers in France,” Damien Couvreur, head of original series for Netflix France, said in a video chat. (Most interviews for this article were translated from their original French.)
But “Lupin” exploded out of the gate, becoming a global phenomenon instantly and eventually Netflix’s most streamed non-English-language original. Now a new batch of five episodes — Part 2, as Netflix is calling it — has arrived and is available on Friday worldwide. For a show that set out with modest expectations, the release of its latest installment might be the TV event of the summer.
“Being a British man, you just think, ‘I could believe that when I see it’ — you don’t want to get excited,” said the creator and showrunner, George Kay, about the success of Part 1. “We got a really nice balance across the world in terms of the reaction, which I understand is kind of unusual for Netflix shows, he added, pointing to the regional targeting of much of its programming.
The 16-year-old Mamadou Haidara — who made his screen debut playing the teen version of Sy’s character, Assane Diop, in flashbacks — was just as surprised.
“I didn’t see any of it coming,” he said in a video chat from outside his house in the Parisian suburb Vitry-sur-Seine. “I saw Twitter and Instagram going up and up — I loved it. I thought the series would do like any other series. But going nuts like that? I never imagined it.” (It’s a safe bet he did not imagine Netflix would begin selling “Lupin”-branded throw pillows either.)
That “Lupin” sneaked in and took off with the planet’s screen time is quite fitting: After all, Assane learned from his literary hero, the dashing “gentleman thief” Arsène Lupin, that operating in plain sight can be the best way to avoid undue attention. Sy illustrated that idea in a publicity stunt in January, in which he put up a poster for the series in a Paris Métro station — wearing a mask for Covid-19, but still.
A major asset for the show is that it is unabashedly family-friendly, which counted for a lot at a time when many countries were in lockdown and people were stuck at home.
“I was very moved to see my son and my father watch something together,” said Clotilde Hesme, who portrays Juliette Pellegrini, a coolly elegant siren prone to flirting with Assane. “I loved seeing this kind of well-done family entertainment.”
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Couvreur, of Netflix France, said that another of the series’s strengths is that it does not try to sand out its Gallic specificities. “That’s how you create stories that travel around the world: They are authentic,” he said, citing the Mexican series “Who Killed Sara?” and the German series “Barbarians” as other examples of Netflix shows that are anchored in local cultures and work in many countries.
Just as “The Queen’s Gambit” boosted sales of chess sets, “Lupin” revitalized interest in the original books by Maurice Leblanc, which have been in the public domain since 2012.
Hachette, the main Leblanc publisher in France, contacted Netflix several years ago after seeing a news item about the series being in the works. Cécile Térouanne, managing director at Hachette Romans, recalls that the streamer kept a tight lid on the show, sharing only screenshots of the Lupin book that Assane inherits from his father, Babakar (Fargass Assandé), and then passes on to his own son, Raoul (Etan Simon).
“In January, we put out an edition of ‘Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Thief’ with the same cover, like something people would have in their library,” Térouanne said in a video interview. “We didn’t know what to expect so we printed 10,000 copies. Today we’ve sold 100,000 copies and printed 200,000, and it doesn’t show any signs of stopping.”
To coincide with the new episodes, Hachette is reissuing the Leblanc novel “The Hollow Needle” — again, with the same basic cover design as Babakar’s book in the show, but in blue. “We were like, ‘This is great, we’re going to do all of them!’” Térouanne said, laughing. “But we can use the Netflix branding only for the first two. For now at least.” She said that sales had increased internationally, too, with a Korean publisher having signaled interest in replicating the cover seen in the series, followed by houses in Italy, Spain, Poland and Portugal.
(A Netflix hit does not automatically translate into book sales: The “Unorthodox” series did well in France but Térouanne said that Hachette had sold only 4,000 copies of the Deborah Feldman memoir that inspired it.)
It would not be surprising if the Lupin craze drove tourism as well, now that travel is picking back up. Some of the show’s locations, like the Louvre and Orsay museums, hardly need the extra crowds. But the coastal Norman town of Étretat has already seen an added influx of folks intrigued by the chalk cliffs and pointy rock formation that play a central part in the Lupin mythos and in the nail-biter that ends Part 1 of the show, according to Eric Baudet from the local tourism office. Visitors can also check out Leblanc’s old home in Étretat, where he composed many of the Lupin stories; it is now a museum.
As for Kay, he does not have time to wander around the French countryside. The writer is busy working on a true-crime mini-series about Peter Sutcliffe, the 1970s serial killer nicknamed the Yorkshire Ripper. “That keeps the other half of my brain ticking along and keeps me grounded in not getting too excited about big, big things,” he said.
But yes, Kay is also developing the next “Lupin” installment. “That has been announced in a subtle way,” he said. “There’s some Easter eggs and some clues buried around. Part 3 will be a departure into a new set of adventures, and I’m looking to bring back even more of the fun from those early episodes.”