These days, a lot of American and British actors in serious TV dramas seem to believe that saying your lines audibly is a bad thing. The theory seems to be that clarity is hammy, but muttering is excellent acting because it sounds like real life. But if we wanted to listen to real life, we’d be out in the dark, eavesdropping under neighbours’ windows. We’re not ― we’re inside, watching TV.
Sound editors compound this diction crisis by adding extreme dynamics, which serve to prohibit maxing the volume. All the mumbling is unpredictably punctuated with terrifying detonations of music or gunfire or screaming traffic. The upshot is that we have to keep the volume lowish and switch on English subtitles if we’re to safely understand what the hell is going on, in an ostensibly English-language show. (What’s that? No, my hearing is perfectly fine, dear, thank you very much.)
The trusty subtitle is also transforming the geopolitics of TV in the streaming era ― as an international vector for non-Anglophone imaginations. Before the rise of streaming, English-language broadcasters were sniffy about buying shows in other languages because dubbing was traditionally clunky and the mental effort of reading subtitles supposedly turned off too many viewers.
But now that the streaming giants can offer a choice between better dubbing and great subtitling, the global power map of TV storytelling has been redrawn. Many of Netflix’s biggest and best hits hail from mainland Europe: the Spanish thriller Money Heist, the Danish political drama Borgen and the French sitcom Call My Agent!. And funnily enough, what those continental hits have all offered viewers, against preconceptions about arty and demanding European filmmaking, is clarity ― of both plot and dialogue. We always know what’s going on. And honestly, that’s so nice.
Netflix’s latest Euro blockbuster is the most accessible of them all: Lupin, whose second part of five episodes dropped last week. It’s a lightweight delight of a derring-do thriller. Omar Sy is Assane Diop, a latter-day Parisian outlaw who worships Arsène Lupin, the master thief and hero of the early 20th-century pulp novels by Maurice Leblanc. It’s a fertile framing device, much more sparky than a straight remake would have been, and the magnetic Sy serves up a lovable trickster in Diop, who is after revenge for his dead father against a villainous upper-class tycoon, one Hubert Pellegrini. While doing so, he also has to navigate the morass of fatherhood after divorce, and keep his son safe from the bad guys.
Like Killing Eve, the show whose darkly antic style it most clearly echoes, Lupin constructs a slightly insane version of the here and now, in which holographic absurdities are allowed and encouraged. In this parallel Paris, a towering black man can keep on pulling off theatrical heists, using preposterous disguises in crowded public spaces, without ever getting picked up by the gendarmes while buying his baguette.
Lupin’s make-believe sheen is heightened by a curiously nostalgic lack of swearing or violence. Assane relies entirely on brute brains, not brute force or brute money — he is a romantic hero of criminal meritocracy. But real-life politics is legible between the lines. The show’s British co-creator, George Kay, has noted that the unlikely invisibility that protects Assane echoes one side of the black experience in a city like Paris. As a black person, you aren’t seen when you need to be seen. The other side, of course, is the wrong kind of visibility: you are seen and confronted all the time by police or the racism of commerce.
Lupin also shares with Money Heist an enticing fairytale of audacious criminality as the fastest form of class struggle. Our Assane may be an outsider, but he is no gilet jaune. The heroes of these shows don’t strike — they strike it rich. And perhaps we can only hope to shut down the Hubert Pellegrinis of this world when we give our kids another, more subversive parallel world: one populated by swashbuckling unionists and deeply sexy tax collectors. But we shouldn’t expect the likes of Netflix or Amazon to make it. They want us to dream on.