tv review

Comrade Detective Isn’t a Satire of Anything

Channing Tatum in Comrade Detective. Photo: Amazon Video/Netflix

The new Amazon series Comrade Detective, about buddy cops trying to solve a colleague’s murder in 1980s Romania, is being described as a satire and a spoof, but I’m not convinced that it’s a satire or parody of anything. While there are a few funny moments, it’s not a relentlessly knowing send-up like Police Squad! or the remake of 21 Jump Street (despite the presence of Channing Tatum as one of the American voices dubbing the Romanian characters, à la Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?). Long stretches of Comrade Detective just feel like a cop series that happens to be set in the 1980s and in Romania, with mostly period-plausible clothes, hair, makeup, and political jokes, but more up-to-the-minute filmmaking tics.

How best to label it? This may be a case where it’s better not to try. I would not be surprised to learn that the show’s creators and principal writers, Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, had something a bit sneakier and more sophisticated in mind when they went looking for funding, and accepted reductive descriptions from Amazon’s marketing and advertising people as a condition of bringing this odd project into being. The dubbing cast is packed with hip lead actors and character players, including Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jenny Slate, Nick Offerman, and Chloë Sevigny. This ensures that Comrade Detective will find viewers who wouldn’t otherwise watch this kind of show.

Tatum voices the lead character, a hard-assed but burned-out and volatile Bucharest detective named Gregor Anghel (played onscreen by Florin Piersic Jr.). A few minutes into the pilot, Gregor’s partner gets killed by a maniac wearing a Ronald Reagan mask. Shortly afterward, Iosif Baciu (voiced by Gordon-Levitt, played onscreen by Corneliu Ulici), a detective from a rural village, arrives in Bucharest and says he was close friends with the dead cop and that he wants justice as badly as Gregor does.

This leads to a standard-issue “meet your new partner” dynamic, with Gregor and Iosif making like Riggs and Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon films, or most buddy cops in an era when the entire Hollywood Establishment was hell-bent on convincing Americans that the Miranda decision neutered law enforcement — except in this case, the badass cop who doesn’t have time for niceties is a proud Romanian Communist who talks trash about Yankees and capitalism. The Lethal Weapon connection becomes more overt when the partners demand answers from the U.S. Embassy but get stonewalled with “diplomatic immunity,” a phrase that defined the drug-dealing South African bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2. Their arrogance seeps off the screen.

It’s that last aspect that complicates Comrade Detective and makes most descriptions of it seem lacking. Gregor has cool-guy hair and stubble and a club-crawler’s leather jacket, the sort of presentation that a Michael Douglas or Don Johnson character would have rocked three decades ago. He physically threatens suspects and low-level criminals and sometimes sweeps stuff off desks and busts heads and indulges in torture. It’s what he has to do to get the job done, don’t you people get it? “You’re in Bucharest now, baby!” he snarls at Iosif. “Can you handle that?”

But it’s all in the service of protecting the motherland and her values: When Comrade Detective weaves Gregor’s version of patriotism into the fabric of the story, then validates it with caricatured images of capitalist pigs from Eastern Europe as well as America, the show becomes a mirror-universe version of the kinds of action films that Hollywood used to produce here during the Reagan era, extolling caveman virtues, praising the profit motive and Horatio Alger myths, and demonizing those damned Commies.

“I always bet on red,” Gregor announces to a dealer in a gambling den, sounding very much like a Romanian cousin of one of those casually jingoistic action he-men that used to be played by Chuck Norris or Sylvester Stallone. When the detectives wait for their turn to see the American ambassador, we’re treated to shots of two fleshy Americans sitting at a nearby table, stuffing their faces with hamburgers piled in stacks. It’s a Communist spin on the kinds of grotesque stereotypes that Hollywood used to layer onto Russians during the Cold War: naming the men Ivan or Boris and the women Natasha, outfitting them with fur coats and hats, and introducing them swilling vodka and wolfing down borscht. Gregor’s patriotism is rooted in personal trauma, the details of which are unveiled in episode two. I won’t say exactly what I mean by that, but it does somewhat miraculously transform Gregor into a character you care about even if his specific politics don’t resonate with American experience.

Be suspicious of anybody who tells you that this series is a laugh riot. It’s just not. It draws in you in with the novelty of its approach and keeps you hooked even though what’s happening onscreen is, dramatically and aesthetically speaking, not much deeper or better-made than a Cannon film starring a third-stringer like Michael Dudikoff. But it is intriguing, even if it doesn’t quite justify its modest six-episode run. Like a lot of TV shows I admire but don’t adore, Comrade Detective seems as if it might’ve worked better as a stand-alone feature film. But then, in an era dominated by endlessly sequel-ized and universe-expanding incarnations of Star Wars, Marvel, DC Comics, and best-selling young-adult novels, almost nobody is willing to bankroll an original film in this vein anymore, so perhaps it doesn’t make sense to keep hauling out that complaint. The market has spoken. Capitalism, damn.

Comrade Detective Isn’t a Satire of Anything