“Whenever I get frustrated, I just think: what would Lenin do?”
Twin Peaks. Game of Thrones. The Leftovers. Forget the contest to be best TV show of the summer, Amazon is aiming to be something else: the weirdest.
Its latest original show, Comrade Detective, is like no other TV show you’ve seen. The series is purportedly a resurrected piece of Romanian propaganda from the 1980s, discovered and dubbed over by Hollywood A-listers for modern audiences – a process that Channing Tatum explains earnestly to the camera in the opening episode. Of course, there was no such TV show in the first place – a host of Romanian actors filmed the whole thing specifically, just so that it could be dubbed back into English for giggles.
It’s that dedication to the cause that makes Comrade Detective so much fun. There’s attention to detail in every frame, from the garishly colourful cinematography and set decoration to the even less tasteful period costumes and haircuts. It’s almost believable that this really was found in a box somewhere in its home country, a relic stuffed with historical artefacts and outdated dialogue.
Delivered with deadpan panache by Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the juxtaposition of their voices coming out of unfamiliar mouths is only half the fun – and that’s the secret to the show’s success, which manages to find more than one joke to sustain its running time. The script is written as though the Communist Manifesto were copied and pasted into a primetime thriller, and it never misses an opportunity to make a dig at capitalist culture or sing the praises of the motherland. The board game of Monopoly is greeted with as much shock and scorn as Jordache jeans and other American inventions (“What the fuck is a car wash?”), while a money-hungry movie mogul is presented as the natural villain of the piece. Romanians, on the other hand, are saints, as long as they’re not corrupted by US influences. “You want the streets of Bucharest to look like Detroit!” Gregor (Tatu) sneers at a pair of drug dealers, annoyed with them less because they’re breaking the law and more because their ideals are all wrong. The flirtatious, fashionably dressed US Ambassador, meanwhile, is considered even worse.
It’s not just the communist creed that brings the laughs, though, as the show also accurately spoofs the cliches of 80s cop shows, from the odd couple at the programme’s heart to the grumpy boss, voiced (in an incredibly ludicrous piece of casting) by Nick Offerman. Tatum and Gordon-Levitt are clearly enjoying themselves in the lead, as Gregor and Detective Baciu, who team up after Gregor’s old partner is killed to get justice, but Florin Piersic Jr. (Killing Time) and Corneliu Ulici (The Devil Inside) deserve just as much credit for delivering the physical side of the roles with such panache and serious expressions – it’s testament to how good they are that the show is also being released in Romanian in its original language.
The comedy, perhaps inevitably, is uneven, with some dry spells where the laughs don’t land, but the stereotypical crime narrative is so well parodied that it’s entertaining to watch in its own right – and, of course, there’s the added bonus of playing spot-the-cameo, as the vocal line-up also includes Jenny Slate, Jake Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Richard Jenkins, and Kim Basinger.
The moment you think the idea has run out of steam, meanwhile, another golden gag arrives. “What if he doesn’t make it?” asks a concerned Gregor of his comrade in the hospital. “Impossible,” comes the whip-smart reply from the doctor. “Romania has the best healthcare in the world.” A spoof porn film, meanwhile, manages to send up poor production values and the gulf between Western and Eastern European cultures on a deceptively smart number of layers – in an age of “fake news”, the fact that the adult movies and cop shows it’s sending up are themselves pieces of entertainment that espouse American values gives the whole thing an underlying political edge.
Smartly wrapping things up in six episodes, the result isn’t the greatest series you’ll watch this summer, but it is one of the shortest – and undoubtedly one of the weirdest, in the best possible sense of the word. “You don’t become a good communist by going to meetings,” declares Tatum’s man of the law. “You do it with your fist.” What would Lenin do? He’d watch the whole thing immediately.
All episodes of Comrade Detective are released exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 4th August.