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Culture Television

Sober silliness

(Rex Features via AP)

Television

Sober silliness

Amazon series cleverly skewers Cold War communism

The Bucharest police chief convenes a meeting with urgent news. There’s been a murder, he declares: “We’re not used to crime in Romania. It’s out of our national character, so we find ourselves completely overwhelmed.” His team of thick-mustached detectives nods solemnly.

That’s in the first episode of Comrade Detective, a six-episode Amazon Prime streaming series. It’s one of many scenes that makes the audience suspect that the show is not what executive producer Channing Tatum and writer John Ronson earnestly presented it to be at the beginning of the show: a Romanian government-sponsored cop-drama from the 1980s, once a “curious footnote in the dustbin of a Communist history” that has now been remastered and dubbed for American audiences. Or so they say—and that’s the ironic twist of Comrade Detective, which is really a spitfire satire of blind nationalism.

But who’s the object of its lampoon? Despite loads of foul language and some extreme nudity, many conservatives love the series, and liberals love it, too. The conservative National Review praised the show as “anti-communist,” while ultra-liberal Vice lauded it as “pro-communist,” but the answer is that Comrade Detective skewers both communism and capitalism on a kebab stick, roasting them nice and hot over a fire of parody. The series is capturing a cultural moment in America, even as its vices will be a sticking point for Christians.

Originally, the producers wanted to refurbish Communist-era cop shows, but realized it’s easier to shoot their own in Romania with Romanian actors, then dub them with voice-overs from American actors. It works: The series feels like authentic Eastern Bloc propaganda, from its dusty low-budget look to the fake stamp of endorsement from the Socialist Republic of Romania.

The story follows a whodunit murder investigation. The culprit: a mysterious man hiding behind a Ronald Reagan mask, possibly the mastermind of a smuggling ring that bootlegs mind-corrupting Western products—rear-hugging blue jeans, Pepsi, Bibles, MTV—so dangerous that smugglers guard their wares with machine guns. The two detectives Gregor Anghel and Iosif Baciu (played by actors Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici, dubbed by Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt respectively) follow two mottos: “What would Lenin do?” and “What would a capitalist pig do?”

By the second episode, the jokes get more absurd. When the detectives discover a Monopoly board game, they stare at the red hotel pieces and fake money in bewilderment. Someone finally explains to them that it’s a game invented to “rebuild trust in capitalism” after the Great Depression. Baciu pounds an indignant fist: “So the purpose of the game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so that you may get rich? It’s diabolical!”

(Rex Features via AP)

Later, Baciu confesses that his uncle defected to America, where he was “forced to open his own business” operating a car wash. “What the [expletive] is a car wash?” Anghel asks. Baciu snorts in disgust: “Americans are so lazy that they can’t be bothered to wash their own cars. … They exploit the poor to do it for them.” Of course, his uncle’s marriage eventually fell apart, and his kids turned to drugs—typical American Dream gone bust.

The laugh-out-loud lines keep the audience tuned in for the next episode, despite the hackneyed cop dialogue and intentionally terrible voice-overs. You can’t wait to hear the next ludicrous statement from the straight-faced characters’ mouths. The series stereotypes Americans—as overweight and ugly, or as red-lipped seductresses, wallowing in greed and gluttony, drunk on sex orgies, drugs, and materialism. A visit to the U.S. Embassy, for example, involves Guns & Ammo magazines, Twinkies, and obese men scarfing down cheeseburgers.

Comrade Detective is introspective in its idiocy, sober in its silliness, creative in its clichés. Even as it pokes fun at communist stereotypes of the West, the show also mocks similar demonizations of Russians as depicted in Hollywood blockbusters such as Red Dawn and Rocky IV. Perhaps, just perhaps, some Eastern Europeans are also cackling at Americans’ gross caricatures of their Borises and Natashas.