I have a new idea for Mondays that as with all plans probably won’t survive contact with the enemy (ie September’s US TV schedule and all the new shows). It’s called Boxset Monday, and the plan is that every Monday, I’ll review an entire ‘boxset’ that I’ve managed to watch either over the weekend or since the previous Monday. Given how Internet TV is changing broadcast TV, resulting in instant releases, shorter seasons et al, I think this is a necessary response. It’s just a question of how much of a life I actually ever plan on having as to whether I can pull it off…
Comrade Detective is an odd beast. The ostensible idea is that during the 1980s, one of the most popular Romanian TV shows was a buddy-buddy cop show in which two police detectives do more or less the exact same things that their American counterparts did, just in Romania under the Soviet system. But it was also a propaganda tool, designed to show the power of communism and the wickedness of capitalism to USSR citizens.
Although even Stanley Kubrick was a fan, following the collapse of the USSR, the programme was then almost completely forgotten about. But now some lost episodes have been recovered from the archives, restored to their former glory, then dubbed by famous actors so that we in the West can see what the East was hooked on during the Cold War.
However, in actuality, what we have is a 6x30ish minute season of a satirical TV show created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (Animal Practice, Dice) that’s designed to mock US TV shows and movies of the 80s and highlight the hidden Western propaganda within those works. Although initially planned to be based on Czechoslovakia’s Třicet případů majora Zemana (Thirty Cases of Major Zeman), it turned out that obtaining the rights to an old Central European TV show and then dubbing it was actually harder than filming an entirely new show from scratch.
So they did that. They actually wrote an entire TV show, got it translated into Romanian, went to Romania and filmed it with Romanian actors and with Romanian production staff, then got the likes of Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chloë Sevigny, Nick Offerman, Jake Johnson and – wowzers – (spoiler alert) Daniel Craig to dub their original English-language scripts on top of it. They even got in that Jon Ronson to provide introductions to episodes with Tatum, to add an air of verisimilitude. Impressive, no?
If you’re expecting a The Flashing Blade or The Staggering Stories of Ferdinand de Bargos, you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t straight-faced cheesy action dubbed with silliness.
Instead, Comrade Detective is an impressive exercise that’s seen a lot of effort gone into it to make something a lot smarter and more political. It does a very good job of exposing stereotypes and conventions – American stereotypes of life in the Soviet Union, Soviet stereotypes of Americans, American stereotypes of Soviet stereotypes of Americans, US action TV and movie conventions and more. It doesn’t take much, but the simple insertion of Soviet propaganda into a standard US cop scene exposes the unconscious conventions we all take for granted.
There are subtle touches all over the place. Songs playing in a nightclub might only have four lines played over and over, because the writers wouldn’t know what an English song actually sounded like. Whether it’s someone praising a car for “being the best in the world” when it’s obviously rubbish, having an American woman talking about how great the food is in Romania compared to in her homeland as she’s eating bean soup, or showing us how Romania might have imagined New York in the 70s or 80s, it reveals our own ignorance and clichés.
Comrade Detective also features Romanian actors who aren’t B-listers, but the likes of Florin Piersic Jr and Corneliu Ulici, who are proper actors and film stars in their own land.
However, it’s also clearly not entirely authentic. It’s shot in 16:9, not 4:3, the effects when there are some (eg exploding cars) are far too good for 80s Romanian TV, and the sheer amount of swearing and full-frontal nudity on display in the six episodes wouldn’t have passed the prime-time censors in the US, Romania or even the UK at the time – they’d probably still have a hard time now, in fact.
Even when exposing hidden stereotypes, the show falls for them itself. The use of torture “because it works” doesn’t feel like something that was part of Soviet propaganda or even policework – notably, the Russian version of Life on Mars had to invert the UK plot to make the KGB the staid good guys, the time traveller from our present the rogue cop, as the modern day FSB are significantly more violent than their predecessors.
It’s also a six-part serial, rather than six self-contained episodes. Serial story-telling wasn’t exactly unknown on TV in the 80s (eg Crime Story), but it was rare, particularly in ostensibly highly popular prime-time shows, making Comrade Detective a somewhat unlikely beast.
Is good, da?
Problematically, you’re therefore not watching six episodes of quite fun, cutting, smart humour, mocking a different target each time. Instead, it’s really one quite long movie that occasionally tries to explore conventions but more often than not is just a quite bad 80s buddy-buddy cop movie. Once you get passed the fact everyone’s watching chess on TV, all the Americans wear jeans and eat cheeseburgers, and that almost no one knows what Monopoly is (“It’s a tool designed to indoctrinate children into the capitalist system”), it’s actually not that much fun to watch a lot of the time, unless you really loved some of the more generic cop shows of the 80s.
Surprisingly, it’s actually when it’s discussing communism and capitalism that the show is at its most interesting. In particular, one episode has a Roman Catholic priest character and having one of the cops engage him in a theological debate from the point of view of a good atheist does make for surprisingly engaging viewing.
Maybe it’s also because I’m European, not American, that I found myself actually agreeing with the Soviet propaganda part of the time and didn’t actually find it that radical. That’s what growing up in a social democracy does for you, but maybe it’s more eye-opening in the US.
A lot of wit and intelligence has gone into Comrade Detective, which is probably unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Unfortunately, not enough humour has gone into it to make it funny enough to even be classed as a comedy. It’s wry, impressive to watch and it’s fun to listen out for guest stars. Just don’t expect to be laughing the whole way through.