The first episode of Comrade Detective opens with two members of the creative team explaining the concept of the show directly to the audience, but it’s still tough to get a handle on what exactly is being presented. Of course, it doesn’t help that the explanation provided by star/executive producer Channing Tatum and British journalist Jon Ronson is complete fiction.
They give a straight-faced account of a lost 1980s Romanian cop drama, a piece of Cold War propaganda produced by the government to promote communist ideals. Newly rediscovered, the show has been dubbed into English and is now being shown for the first time to Western audiences.
None of that is true: Comrade Detective is an entirely original meta-narrative from creators Brian Gatewood ’00 and Alessandro Tanaka, who wrote all six episodes in the show’s first season. Shot in Romania with Romanian actors, it’s been dubbed into English by an all-star cast led by Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, along with comedy fixtures such as Jenny Slate, Nick Offerman, Jason Mantzoukas and Jake Johnson.
Clues that lead to the culprit include a Monopoly board and Jordache jeans.
Structured like an ultra-macho American action movie from the 1980s, Comrade Detective is less a parody of Romanian pop culture than of American ideas of what Cold War-era communist pop culture might have been. What if a Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris hero were a proud Romanian communist? The result would be something like Comrade Detective.
Tatum provides the voice for Bucharest police detective Gregor Anghel (played onscreen by Florin Piersic Jr.), whose partner Constantin is murdered in the first episode. In classic buddy-cop fashion, Gregor is paired up with rural detective Iosef Baciu (voiced by Gordon-Levitt, played onscreen by Corneliu Ulici), who helps investigate the death. Although the reckless Gregor and the more measured Iosef clash at first, they move past their differences, thanks to a shared dedication to communism. The excesses of capitalism fuel the conspiracy behind the murder.
That gives the creators and director Rhys Thomas plenty of opportunities to indulge in stereotypes: clues that lead to the culprit include a Monopoly board, Jordache jeans and a Michael Jackson-style glove. “Everyone in the U.S. seems to have AIDS,” a diplomat says. Employees at the U.S. embassy sit around eating Twinkies. Meanwhile, in the bar that Gregor frequents, patrons are glued to televised chess matches.
The show remains remarkably faithful to its conceit, and while the humor is never laugh-out-loud funny, the creators find new layers to essentially the same joke as the case gets more and more complicated. Thomas shoots in a style closer to modern serialized TV than ’80s Eastern Bloc programming, but the locations, costumes and performances give the show an alternate-universe verisimilitude. It’s authentic in its fakery.
Josh Bell ’02 is the film editor at Las Vegas Weekly.