Even after finishing all of it, it’s an open question if the six-episode “Comrade Detective” is trying to be funny. The half-hour show from co-creators Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (who created NBC’s quite different sitcom “Animal Practice”) presents itself as a lost piece of Soviet propaganda, now dredged up and remastered for curious American audiences. What it is, actually, is a six-part series shot and performed entirely in Romanian — in Romania! — and then dubbed over, ridiculously, with English. The splashy, macho cop drama set in Bucharest takes on quite a different meaning when performed in a different language, overlaid with English-language dialogue performed by Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a whole array of guests like Jenny Slate, Nick Offerman, Jason Mantzoukas, and Chloë Sevigny. The characters self-consciously and unconvincingly sing the praises of the Soviets, while decrying the oversexualized, God-fearing weakness of the American way.
At first blush, it’s so broad it is dense, a series of caricatures working together in tandem. The fake-found propaganda appears to have about enough juice for a a minute-long sketch that is almost daring the viewer to take it more seriously. Partway through the second episode, it’s hard to believe that a single gimmick has been inflated into a three-hour B-movie. I was wondering if the show was an “Anchorman”-like exploration of awkwardly broad humor… or just bad.
But around when the two Romanian detectives sit down to solemnly investigate a training tool of capitalism — a beat-up game of Monopoly — “Comrade Detective” moves towards being truly surprising. In a political moment where the Cold War is new again — where sympathies towards socialism and Russians have had much-covered resurgence all over the political spectrum — “Comrade Detective” is an inverted piece of propaganda that makes America the Other for someone else’s self-serving narrative. At times, the result is a fascinating collapse of dichotomy between any “us” and any “them” — with an acidic read on how easy it is to caricature one set of values in order to elevate another, and ongoing observations on just how powerful pop culture as a tool of ideology. At others, it is simply asinine — an over-elaborate setup for gag after gag with the exact same punchline (which is, roughly, “lol, Russia”). The odd juxtaposition might not be every viewer’s cup of tea, but it makes for a uniquely engrossing viewing experience that uses the grammar of propaganda to demonstrate how powerful propaganda is. It is, also, sometimes a comedy —“lol, Russia” is, sometimes, quite a funny punch line — but casual viewers should be aware that “Comrade Detective” is more intriguing for its observations about media than its laugh lines.
The story follows Gregor (Florin Piersic, Jr. on-screen and Tatum in voiceover), a detective in the “Bucharest PD” who is thrown into the world of black-market smuggling of American goods when his partner is killed. Teaming up with Iosef (Corneiu Ulici, voiced by Gordon-Levitt), the two traverse the seedy underbelly of the city. The two have to battle Americans (who stuff themselves with hamburgers and Twinkies and occasionally say “motherf—ker”) and crooked communists who are letting the wretched materialism of the West infect them. Though most of the show is wrapped up in mirror-imaging the American conception of the U.S.S.R. into its exact opposite, “Comrade Detective” also takes aim at any gritty crime drama’s tropes, with exaggerated sex scenes and hackneyed cop dialogue. For all of its put-on silliness, the show is thoughtful, and for the viewer, “Comrade Detective’s” studied flatness ends up speaking its own volumes.
In a nod to that careful consideration, director Rhys Tomas makes sure that the show looks the part of ‘80s-era Cold War drama, and especially with Iosef’s wife Sonya (Diana Vladu, voiced by Sevigny) the storytelling dodges towards the actually and painfully dramatic. It’s a journey through layers of irony; occasionally, Tatum and author Jon Ronson introduce the episodes with put-on seriousness, for even more ironic emphasis. All together it makes for a thought experiment more than a story, with occasional flashes of brilliance that may or may not be purely unintentional. If “Comrade Detective” is razor-sharp commentary about stereotypes in American media, it sometimes cuts so sharp that it’s imperceptible. But that makes it quite an immersive viewing experience, one that challenges the viewer to read into every seemingly bland moment as a bundle of unspoken interpretations. “Comrade Detective” stabs toward the acutely insightful and the bluntly caricatured without apparent distinction, because it leaves that distinction to the viewer. It’s not your average television comedy — and certainly a far cry from the classic model, that would deliver the expected laughs right to your living room. But as journey through film conventions and assumptions about identity, “Comrade Detective” is quite a trip.