The first episode of Comrade Detective opens with producer and star Channing Tatum sitting in a movie theater with journalist Jon Ronson. They are gathered to present a forgotten treasure from an even more forgotten time, which took over two decades to find, in a continent-spanning search, and obtained “with the cooperation of five international governments.” It is Tovarăşul Miliţian, a police drama from 1980s Romania, otherwise known here by its aforementioned English title.
“Similar to American propaganda films, like Red Dawn and Rocky IV that demonize the Eastern Bloc,” says Ronson, “Comrade Detective was produced and funded by the Romanian government, not merely to entertain, but to celebrate and promote Communist ideals.”
In that instant, Ronson brings back memories of a cultural moment where everything comfortably split between the Evil Empire and the Free World. It’s a time so completely its own that even people born just outside of its range know an irony-tinged “Wolverines!” when they hear it. And yet, Comrade Detective has perplexed critics since its announcement.
Vice called it “the weirdest show of 2017,” and GQ likewise called it “insane.” “What the hell is Comrade Detective,” Vanity Fair put more bluntly. Neither the designations nor the question is entirely unfair. Even Twin Peaks can be explained with some cogency, but the Channing Tatum-produced comedy twists its framework—the parody—into such tight knots that explaining it to one who has not seen it is a steep hurdle. Fortunately there are enough appealing elements to make that hurdle surmountable.
Comrade Detective does not actually exist. That is to say, no such show was ever produced, as the fine print on the opening title card states, with the cooperation of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Ministerul Culturii. It was filmed late last year in Bucharest, with Romanian actors, at the behest of Tatum, who had asked its creative team for “their worst idea.”
Maybe worst is a bit strong, but it is complicated. It follows a similar model of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, another show within a show in which its cast did double duty playing actors playing characters. Only here the Romanian actors are dubbed over by Hollywood A-listers. More than that, it effectively combines two targets of parody, though making the broader target the framework around the more unique target.
“You don’t become a good Communist by going to meetings. Or memorizing the Manifesto. You do it on the streets. You do it with your fists. The rest is bullshit, and you know it.” So says Tatum in the voice of Det. Gregor Anghel of the Bucharest PD. His unshaven, smoked aviator-donning demeanor and devil may care charm is recognizable enough. So too is his tense but loyal relationships with his straight-laced partner (Joseph Gordon Levitt), his hard-ass lieutenant (an inspired Nick Offerman), and his bumbling colleagues (Jake Johnson and Jason Mantzoukas). Only here, characters watch chess as we do the NFL, feast on tripe soup, and defy Michael Mann’s Miami Vice “no earth tones” rule. “We’re not used to crime in Romania,” Offerman’s lieutenant says. “It’s not part of our national character.”
Yet when Anghel’s partner (voiced by SNL cast member Beck Bennett) is killed by an assailant wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, the principal duo wades into a similarly familiar seedy and convoluted criminal underworld. They follow a trail of clues made up of Jordache jeans, a Monopoly board, a can of Pepsi, and American porn films where mergers and acquisitions are undertaken in erotic cadence. They encounter a corrupt US Ambassador (Kim Bassinger), a renegade priest (Daniel Craig), a soda-addicted aspiring entrepreneur (Bobby Cannavale), and his nervous, doomed lackey (Fred Armisen).
While Rocky IV (1985) featured a stalwart “natural man” Sylvester Stallone running across the set of Dr. Zhivago in a synthesizer-driven montage (meanwhile his nemesis Drago pumps up in a steely Soviet laboratory), this time the Americans play the garish caricatures and propagandistic foils. The U.S. is corruption embodied. Its citizens are at once obese, sedentary, and restlessly greedy. They are drug-addled, AIDS-afflicted, and utterly incapable of getting the money they crave. Romania is the unimpeachable Communist ideal. Citizens are allotted free healthcare and education, the nation is crime-free but their police force is the most incorruptible and efficient on earth. Any disorder is the result of capitalist temptations. “I have an uncle, Pavel, who was seduced by the West,” Baciu says. “Needless to say, things did not end well. He was forced to start his own business just to survive. He opened a car wash…And soon one car wash wasn’t enough. He opened another. And another.”
The cartoonish perceptions of the United States are not as interesting as the incisive portrayal of the Romanian heroes. Besides some portraiture, there’s no explicit reference to Ceaușescu and his regime’s brutality. Many of the jokes apply broadly to the leftist totalitarian mindset. “No man has the right to take their own life,” says Offerman, completely upending Ron Swanson. “That is a right for the state, and the state alone.” Lines like that, and an entire episode in which the duo uncover a Bible-smuggling operation, makes one understand the show as the act of subversive creatives mocking progressive intransigence. But more generally, it captures a sense of self-assurance and purity that drives ideological states of any kind. There is no shortage of deadpanning over the virtues of informing on family members and the practicality of torture in the maintenance of order.
Perhaps a better point of comparison, then, would be the work of Armando Iannucci, who portrays political systems steeped in cynicism and the self-serving pursuit of power while just barely able to function. Comrade Detective delivers that cross-section of Cold War nostalgia amused by the delusions and hubris of the Eastern Bloc while also pining for the romantic simplicity of a world divided by two competing variations of humanism. “No matter how few we are, we must raise the flag,” Ceaușescu told Mikhail Gorbachev in a December 1989 meeting. “The people need to see that we are taking action to extend the influence of socialism and the revolutionary movement.” He and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas day. You can watch it on YouTube.
At the same time, it’s hard to read much depth into Comrade Detective when its genesis came from Tatum’s odd “worst idea” request. The makers have tried to spin contemporary relevance into it with regards to the power of propaganda in any age; there is even a less-than-subtle reference to Trump in one episode. In one interview Joseph Gordon Levitt cited Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. I suppose that is one way to justify the odd tone of the show that is replete with sex and profanity, more reminiscent of HBO than a product of a Ministry of Culture.
If Comrade Detective derives coherence in any way it is from the truth at the heart of its parody, however unintentionally reached. “We’re not used to crime in Romania,” has an unnerving echo across the Warsaw Pact nations. At the same time of the show’s setting, Andrei Chikatilo was in the middle of his killing spree across Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. He evaded capture for 12 years, managing to murder over 50 women and children. The Eastern Bloc proved efficient to the point of ruthlessness in policing its citizen’s thoughts and habits, but thought them otherwise safe from serial murderers and other purely Western phenomenon.
But even after all the thought going into it, there is still the strange spectacle of the show in total, which presents itself in a familiarity and a ridiculousness not unlike seeing stained glass windows fixed in a Waffle House. It is one thing to consider a show that requires an adversary who is well versed in Adam Smith, but quite another thing to assume that there’s an audience who would find that funny.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey; he has been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Week. Follow him at his blog and on Twitter @CR_Morgan.