Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Always Bet on Red: Amazon's Comrade Detective

Corneliu Ulici and Florin Piersic Jr. in Comrade Detective.

"You don't become a good Communist by going to meetings or memorizing the manifesto. You do it on the streets. You do it with your fists. The rest is bullshit and you know it."
This is how we are introduced to Detective Gregor Anghel, one of Bucharest PD's finest and the man at the centre of Amazon's mind-bending new buddy-cop satire, Comrade Detective. Hardened by the mean streets of Bucharest, cigarette in hand and draped in a leather jacket, Anghel is a cop who plays by his own rules – at least when he's not quoting from The Communist Manifesto or testing his tactics against the simple mantra: "What would Lenin do?" (before concluding firmly: "Lenin would fuck him up!").

Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (the team behind NBC's short-lived Animal Practice in 2012, and currently working together on Andrew Dice Clay's Dice on Showtime), Comrade Detective begins straightforwardly enough, with Channing Tatum and Welsh journalist and author Jon Ronson sitting side by side in a screening room, Siskel & Ebert-style. Tatum flashes a gorgeous smile and together with Ronson they set up what we are about to view: a Communist-era Romanian television series from the '80s, dredged up from the archives, remastered, dubbed into English and now ready for its Western debut. Of course, none of that – except for the dubbing – is true. But it is begging to be believed.

Comrade enters a television universe awash in '80s period shows (recent additions like Snowfall and GLOW now sit alongside The Goldbergs, Stranger Things, Halt and Catch Fire, Narcos and The Americans), but it is by far the most audacious. Watched through the shadowy lens of our current dark moment in history is a show that is actually about something – namely the experience of living under a totalitarian regime, under the spell of fake news and misinformation – while never removing its tongue from its cheek.

Written first in English by Gatewood and Tanaka, the scripts were translated into Romanian. Director Rhys Thomas then filmed all six episodes on location in Romania, with a full Romanian cast, sending the film back stateside for English dialogue to be added in post-production. The two lead cops – Detectives Anghel and Iosif Baciu (played on screen by Romanian actors Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici) are voiced by Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – and there's a long list of surprising American film and TV stars who make their voices heard throughout this journey into Communist Bucharest.

Tatum and Gordon-Levitt both do yeoman's work, but as the voice of Captain Covaci (portrayed on screen by Adrian Paduraru), it's Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) who delivers every line ("My boys, if this thing goes south, I will knock your dicks in the dirt"; "Don't worry. I'll send you meatballs in prison") with pitch-perfect gruff aplomb. Attentive ears will also pick up the voices everyone's favourite sleazebag Jason Mantzoukas (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The League) and Jake Johnson (New Girl) as the squad room's mouth-breathing rival-detective duo, portrayed by Florin Galan and Ion Grosu. (Also keep an ear open for Kim Basinger, Emmy-winner Bobby Cannavale, playwright/actor Tracy Letts, and Chloë Sevigny.)

There's a lot of talent and ambition behind Comrade Detective – and you wouldn't think it would work. The notable production background notwithstanding, the plot is pure '80s buddy film: the substance-abusing, self-hating, rule-breaking detective paired with the by-the-book family man to work a case that is that is personal to both of them. (Put Lethal Weapon and Deutschland 83 in a blender, add a dash of Angie Tribeca, and you'll get something resembling Comrade Detective.) With its over-the-top dialogue ("Our two countries may be in a cold war, but I'm burning hot for you," the interim US Ambassador, voiced by Jenny Slate, tells Anghel in a husky tone) and clumsy dubbing (all scenes, indoor and outside, sound like they were recorded in the same studio, the voice actors crowded around a single mic), you'd think the joke would get old fast, and that the (initially fun) game of guessing whose voice is coming out of which unfamiliar Romanian face (is that Mahershala Ali?!) would become an empty distraction. But it turns out the real impact is a slow burn. Comrade Detective knows that the dialogue is over-the-top – and keeps it there because at some point you just can't avoid the Cold War/hot sex zinger.

Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici in Comrade Detective.

But what makes Comrade Detective work is that it holds so firmly to its conceit that it turns itself inside out and back again. (There are number of moments where the show could have winked at the camera, especially in its final minutes, but it never falters.) There are laugh-out-loud lines, certainly, but it was the whole package that left me open-jawed at its sheer chutzpah. Our two heroes are true believers: "good Communists" and party loyalists. There are no unfair trials in Romania and the U.S.A. is an evil empire, full of Bible-thumping, cowboy-hat-wearing, fat capitalist stooges.

The finished result is surreal. The multiple levels – both ideological and aesthetic – result in an experience of tilted reality that is hard to describe in words. The "series within the series" is presented as the Eastern Bloc equivalent to '80s-era propagandistic Western pop culture (Red Dawn and Rocky IV get special shout-outs), which means that Comrade Detective gets to have its prăjitură and eat it too – spoofing Cold War-era American-made projects, Eastern Bloc self-perceptions,  imperialist Americans, and imperialist American perceptions of Eastern Bloc self-perceptions. (Oh, and of course it takes down every buddy-cop film ever made in the process.)

I have to confess that the first hour left me spinning in all directions. The dreamlike violence called me alternately to Alan Spencer's utterly twisted Bullet to the Face and Brit-crime spoof A Touch of Cloth. Its nuanced admixture of slapstick and Cold War politics smarts made me think of A Very Secret Service. And its labyrinthine narrative frame threatened to pull me down a meta-rabbit hole… Until I finally just let go, and realized that Comrade was a world unto itself: a world in which police officers beat up suspects with contraband Gideon Bibles, a world where interrogations turn into impromptu debates on atheism and the problem of evil, a world where the word "Communist" has only positive connotations. Though the cartoonish storyline -- a winding conspiracy to corrupt the pure socialist souls of Romania with blue jeans, synth pop and Western ideologies – does get actually compelling, and every episode (including the final one) ends with an on-screen Va Urma . . . (To Be Continued), Comrade Detective seems less interested in pulling the viewer forward to its (bloody, surreal, just plain insane) conclusion than about the journey itself.

The laugh lines are there ("Officer, I think there's been an intruder." / "I'm sure it's nothing, ma'am. It's just a neighbor's misguided attempt at redistributing Nikita's wealth"), but it was always the small details that kept me coming back. Like this overheard exchange between the U.S. Embassy guards: "Man, did you see the American football game last night? . . . So many passes." Or the accordion-heavy Romanian cover of Animotion's "Obsession" that serves as a diegetic soundtrack to one of the show's first major action sequences. Or just the fact that there is one, brief moment when the mere sight of a crazed suspect (voiced, you discover in the episode's closing credits, by Daniel Craig) dancing maniacally to Nu Shooz's "I Can't Wait" will send shivers down your spine.

What it all adds up to is an almost impossibly and utterly delightful offering from Amazon. I promise you'll never look at a game of Monopoly or a can of Diet Pepsi the same every again.

The first season of Comrade Detective is available for download on Amazon. A second season has not yet been confirmed. 

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics At Large since 2010.

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