By Kyle Smith
Saturday, August 05, 2017
To the entertainment industry, the McCarthy-era blacklist, which led to unemployment for a few dozen Hollywood types, and Communism, the international terror scheme that subjugated hundreds of millions, have traditionally been treated as though they’re of roughly equal historical interest. Rarely has Hollywood handled Communism with the antagonism it deserved, and when it did so it was usually in crude Sylvester Stallone parables.
Even more rarely did Communism’s multifarious self-contradictions generate outright ridicule from top comedy writers. Comrade Detective, a wickedly funny new half-hour show on the Amazon Prime streaming service, is an honorable exception to the rule. It amounts to a comedy shooting range where ludicrous Communist propositions repeatedly get targeted. WFB probably spent more time appearing on television than watching it, but if he were with us today it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t get a chuckle out of Comrade Detective.
The concept is a sort of triangulation between The Naked Gun and The Americans. According to an earnestly delivered prologue, what we’re watching is found footage: An actual Romanian buddy-cop TV show from the 1980s. The look and feel of the show (which was actually shot last year) are absolutely dead-on recreations, exactly what you’d expect if you happened to be watching prime-time state TV in Bucharest circa 1988. The actors are Romanian, the mustaches are thick, the art direction is lavishly gray. Everything is played with a completely straight face, and the series was actually filmed in Eastern Europe, which apparently still features lots of locations suffering from Soviet Bloc hangover. If you turned off the sound, you’d swear you were actually watching the Romanian Simon & Simon.
What makes Comrade Detective a comedy is the (intentionally ungainly) dubbing: Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt provide the voices of the mismatched detectives, Gregor Anghel and Iosif Baciu (played impeccably onscreen by Romanians Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici), and such familiar actors as Chloë Sevigny, Daniel Craig, Jake Johnson, Kim Basinger, Jenny Slate, and Mahershala Ali dub supporting characters. Nick Offerman, voicing the crusty, no-nonsense police chief, is especially fine.
You could call Comrade Detective a one-joke affair, but that could also be said of Airplane. Inside that one joke, series creators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka have built a deep reservoir of comedy. Occasionally the show merely gives a tweak to cop-show clichés — the protagonists are constantly being needled by a rival pair of detectives at the same precinct and they say things like, “The guy has a rap sheet a kilometer long.” But for the most part the comedy is specifically and sharply anti-Communist. Episodes begin with a fake approval certificate from the state censor: “Ministerul de Divertisment Acceptabil.” At a hospital that looks like a Victorian lunatic asylum, a doctor who looks like a hot-dog vendor says, “Of course he’s going to recover. He’s receiving the best health care in the entire world.” Cops keep passing along horror stories about Western capitalism: About a Romanian who went to America and ran a car wash, one detective asks, “What the [heck] is a car wash?” He is gravely told, “Americans are so lazy they can’t be bothered to wash their own cars. They exploit the poor to do it for them.”
Explaining the board game Monopoly, which plays a surprising role in the plot, devolves into pained disbelief: “The more rent you get paid the more money you make,” says an expert on the West. “You’re telling me that the purpose of this game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so that you may get rich?” says one of the cops. Black-market racketeers inspire a near-riot amid desperate demand for their wares and protect themselves with machine guns . . . in the process of selling Jordache jeans. Because we’re watching Iron Curtain propaganda, a visit to the U.S. embassy reveals that average Americans are eating huge piles of hamburgers at all times, even at the office. Looming offscreen like the Emperor in Star Wars or Voldemort in Harry Potter, the ultimate source of bone-chilling unease is . . . Ronald Reagan.
So many of the premises beloved by the Communist propaganda machine satirized by Comrade Detective are shared by the ordinary contemporary lefty that the show amounts to giving today’s progs a vigorous little noogie. For supplementary meta-comedy value I recommend watching Comrade Detective with whatever Bernie Bros you may number among your acquaintances. You may notice them squirming ever so slightly and asking, “Wait a minute, what’s so hilarious about harboring an unreasoning hatred for Ronald Reagan, Western institutions, and capitalism?”