The 1980s action Hollywood scene belonged to Sylvester Stallone. Popular movie franchises like Rambo, Rocky and movies such as Red Dawn drilled American political propaganda into the minds of movie watchers, demonising the world beyond the Iron Curtain. All things communist and East Bloc were sources of evil, and capitalism and America (as it presumes to be to this day) was the saviour of the goodness, freedom and democracy. A glorious picture, but one that would not have resonated as well in the Soviet Union.
But wouldn’t there be similar capitalism-hating, communist propaganda driving programming in the Eastern Bloc? A six-part series that has been recently tracked down, restored and dubbed for international audiences for the first time in 30 years presents a unique and never-before-seen view of what TV looked like behind the Iron Curtain. This is the Romanian buddy-cop Cold War-Era drama series, Comrade Detective.
At the beginning of the first episode, actor and producer Channing Tatum and the host Jon Ronson introduce the series as government-funded programming aimed at promoting communist ideals. And as the show starts, the freeze frame title credits, the era-appropriate soundtrack and the fashion take you back to the ’80s. This is not a homage to the era, it’s the resurgence of a long-lost, recently-found, perfectly-restored TV phenomenon of the time.
Except that it’s not.
Comrade Detective is an original comedy-drama created for Amazon Prime Video (though regrettably not available in India for now) that recreates ’80s television, propaganda and Bucharest with what seems like commendable accuracy. Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka and executive produced by Tatum, the show poses as propaganda, highlighting its similarities with its American counterpart and the ridiculousness of all that we have been mindlessly and unconsciously guzzling with our Coca Colas. The series is not a spoof but a clever cop drama, simply written from the other side of the fence.
The series does not mock the East Bloc, but throws light on the way propaganda works by giving the audience six hours of what they believe to be well-meaning, idealistic, genuine communist thinking. The humour lies in the deliberately out-of-sync dubbing, and the obvious overturning of typical American formulaic TV tropes and concepts. The comedy lies clearly and completely in the eyes of the beholder.
Rogue Romanian detective Gregor Anghel (played by Florin Piersic and voiced by Channing Tatum) lives on the edge. When his friend and partner Nikita is killed by a man in a Ronald Reagan mask, he joins forces with the honest, simple and state-loving Iosef Baciu to find the killer. They have nothing to go on with except the tag from a symbol of decadence – a pair of “Jordache” jeans (read with multiple hilarious pronunciations). They walk the streets of Bucharest, infiltrate illegal American casinos, and raid the US embassy and find that the cause of all things evil is, of course, America. Jeans is the source of corruption, women are characterless, and hamburgers are the staple diet of overweight gun-loving Westerners who almost always talk with a long Southern-American drawl to their ‘y’alls’.
The board game Monopoly is at the center of the plot – a game designed to teach children that the only way to get ahead is by exploiting others. Organised religion is designed to corrupt and oppress the people. Everyone, obviously, has AIDS.
The show isn’t a parody. The dialogue and setting are not employed as irony but just as they are. When Anghel suggests that there is a leak in the police system, he is promptly reminded that there is no such thing as a corrupt police officer in Romania. When a couple of drug dealers tell the detectives that they peddle drugs for money, Anghel asks why they need money when Romania gives them everything they need – education, healthcare and the works.
When in doubt, Baciu always asks himself, “What would Lenin do?”
The scripting outlines what these men seriously believe: the government, the nation and their ideology is beyond corruption and fault. Isn’t that what propaganda entails?
Shot with relatively unknown Romanian actors and in Romania, the show uses the proven comedic power of good old off-sync dubbing, voiced by popular TV actors like Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nick Offerman, Chloe Sevigny, Daniel Craig, Jake Johnson, Kim Basinger, Jenny Slate, and Mahershala Ali. Though the premise is set in the first few minutes, the scripting is tight and intriguing enough to keep you watching through the end. While it does account for a good share of chuckles in every episode, the fact that this is serious programming, pretending to have been from the lens of a person on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is never lost to viewers.
Tatum points out that Kubrick too was a fan and a student of the series. How’s that work in changing the way you think about Comrade Detective?