Introduced as a film preservationist’s recent discovery and told with the utmost accuracy to its specified time period, “Comrade Detective” is, by all discernible indication, a Romanian television series from the ’80s that’s been restored and dubbed for American audiences. Executive producer Channing Tatum and host John Ronson say so in welcoming viewers to the series:
“Similar to American propaganda films like ‘Red Dawn’ and ‘Rocky IV,’ that demonized the Eastern block, ‘Comrade Detective’ was produced and funded by the Romanian government not merely to entertain, but to celebrate and promote communist ideals,” Ronson says.
“After a two-decade journey spanning four continents, hundreds of dead-end leads, and the cooperation of five international governments, we have finally tracked down and restored the international master copies — and dubbed them.”
Once the footage rolls, nothing the hosts said rings false. Episodes are period appropriate, from the freeze-framed opening titles to the cars, soundtrack, and local language. The actors’ Romanian dialogue is dubbed over with familiar American voices for the benefit of English-speaking audiences, but the on-screen actors are relative unknowns who appear to be locals.
From the first frame to the final shot, “Comrade Detective” looks the part. Tatum even thanks the Romanian Film Preservation Society for their “painstaking work” in remastering all six hours.
But such a society doesn’t exist, and neither did “Comrade Detective.” The series has been constructed from top to bottom as an elaborate sight gag as much as a smart satire. Creators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka based the series on actual communist propaganda — TV shows made in the communist countries of Eastern Europe during the 1980s — but procuring the rights proved more difficult than writing, shooting, and editing their own show. Dubbing was always the plan, and everything has been built from the ground up.
That “Comrade Detective” is nothing that it claims to be — not a Romanian show, nor made in the ’80s, nor intended as actual propaganda — only makes the joke better; if, that is, there’s a joke to be had.
On its surface, “Comrade Detective” follows rogue Romanian detective Gregor Anghel (played by Florin Piersic and voiced by Channing Tatum) whose cavalier attitude toward police work gets his partner, Nikita (Cristian Popa and Beck Bennett), killed. An old friend (Corneliu Ulici and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) joins Gregor in his quest for vengeance, and the two cops slowly unravel a massive conspiracy threatening to take down Romania entirely.
What’s behind the evil plot? Capitalism, of course.
An unblinking comedy if not a particularly sly drama, “Comrade Detective” works best as a cheesy cop show evoking a clever reversal of perceptions. Its intent is not to mock the mind control measures employed by America’s Cold War foes, but to point out the commonalities between the countries’ tactics.
Take, for instance, Ronson’s above introduction. Claiming “Rocky IV” is purely an American propaganda film cuts too close to home for this Sylvester Stallone fan, but understanding that impression of it isn’t detrimental to appreciating the snowy training montages or Rocky’s concussed closing speech. If anything, it creates a more complete picture, and it often feels like “Comrade Detective” is filling in the historic gaps of a loyalist’s one-sided mentality. Americans know and love so much pop culture that other countries’ citizens could see as propaganda, and reframing that perspective makes for intriguing and enlightening entertainment.
In the second episode, for instance, the board game Monopoly is discovered inside a capitalist’s confiscated automobile. No one knows what it is. They can’t even fathom it’s a game meant for children. The hour’s arc is built around unveiling the “diabolical” nature of a beloved American board game, and it’s convincing. Anyone who took the time to consider the moral implications of Monopoly’s objective — and what child didn’t? — likely already arrived at the twisted perception shared in the series, but its use as a prop is as effective as the dialogue written to eviscerate Hasbro’s top-seller.
To call this kind of commentary funny wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s also too simple. Though there are clear punchlines in “Comrade Detective” and brief moments of obvious humor — the opening exchange between Gregor and Nikita about how Marxism supports Gregor sleeping with as many women as he needs is hysterical — the sneaky nature of its unveiling, which begs investigation by viewers, evokes a complex overall intent from creators Gatewood and Tanaka. They’re not simply here to make you laugh. They’re not here to upset you. They’re here to make you think differently and enjoy your time doing it.
By that gauge, “Comrade Detective” is a roaring success. By the basic metric of thoroughly engaging television, it’s still a winner. At times, the familiar narrative can work against itself. That the series needs to reference well-worn territory makes the initial impression strong, but wears slightly over time. Guessing who the voices are, as well as being surprised by ill-fitting on-screen actors and voice actors — like Jerrod Carmichael as a white Romanian street thug — fills these sparse gaps sporadically, and the show picks up the slack in its final few hours.
Perhaps what works best about “Comrade Detective,” and the best way to understand its complicated origins, is how it elicits parallels between satire and propaganda. Satire doesn’t have to be as obvious as it typically is on “Saturday Night Live.” Iconic comedies like “30 Rock” and “Veep” contextualize contemporary issues without beating you over the head with an agenda, and dramas like “Black Mirror” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” do the same. “Comrade Detective” finds a middle-ground between genres with an internal engine driven not by malicious mockery, but by eye-opening insight. It slips in commentary under the guise of laughter, but the point of the joke, whether you chuckle or not, sticks with you.
“Comrade Detective” Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime.