TV shows

‘Comrade Detective’ review: The funny, smart and weird ’80s Romanian cop drama that never was

The Amazon Prime Video comedy recreates 1980s television and communist Romania to give an in idea of how propaganda works.

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.

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.

Comrade Detective.

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?

Comrade Detective.
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.