TV: Comrade Detective (Season 1)

If you’re searching for evidence there are entirely too many TV shows these days, look no farther than Comrade Detective (Amazon Prime), a unique comedy filling a peculiar niche. Shot in 2017, the series purports to be a long-lost, Soviet Bloc buddy cop series set in communist Romania in the 1980s, newly remastered and dubbed into English. It takes us to the streets of Bucharest at the tail end of the Cold War, where loose-cannon detective Gregor Anghel (played by Florin Piersic Jr., voiced by Channing Tatum) solves crimes and protects Romania from pernicious western ideas. When Gregor’s partner is gunned down by a terrorist in a Ronald Reagan mask, he gets a new partner: Iosif Baciu (Corneliu Ulici/Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a childhood friend of the murdered detective who transfers in from the country to seek justice on the killer. Impulsive Gregor and thoughtful Iosif are an odd couple, but they’re also devoted communists who develop a strong bond of respect and friendship as they seek to solve their mutual friend’s homicide. In the process, they uncover a shocking conspiracy, all the while battling the subversive influence of western capitalism on their beloved homeland.

Conceptually, Comrade Detective is pure gold. It’s just such a bizarre and elaborate lark, a period cop drama that sends up Iron Curtain propaganda and 1980s buddy-cop cliches simultaneously. Chances are you’ve never seen anything quite this quirky; for comp titles, the only show that comes to mind is the weird Australian series Danger 5, which does something similar with its crass, difficult-to-watch second season. Comrade Detective is far more accessible than that, though. Its voice cast is chock full of comic talent: Nick Offerman as the detectives’ no-nonsense lieutenant, Jenny Slate as a slinky, devious American embassy official, Jason Mantzoukas and Jake Johnson as rival cops in the department. Other performers turning up in unexpected cameos include Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, Daniel Craig, Richard Jenkins, Chloë Sevigny, and Debra Winger. It’s great fun trying to figure which celebrities are voicing which characters, over-dubbing—with varying degrees of deliberate ineptitude—the earnest Romanian performers, who wisely play it straight.

Alas, the humor is hit or miss, typically less laugh-out-loud funny than slyly amusing in a subdued, meta way. The best bits involve lines of dialogue which comically exaggerate just how terrific Romania and communism are, while blasting the ugly economic imperialism of the Reagan-era U.S. (Interestingly, the script’s mock-propaganda against the west is probably more effective to the modern American left than it would have been to 1980s Romanians; the biggest laughs for me often came when I realize I was relating too much to the communist party-line messaging.) Unfortunately, the overall execution is uneven. Comrade Detective over-relies on 1980s buddy-cop trappings for its comedy, when it might have done better to ham up the bad over-dubbing and the political angle. It also too often breaks the rules established by its very concept: the grungy cinematography is a little too polished for 1980s Soviet Bloc film-making, the foul language and nudity feels anachronistic, the music is too…good? (Tonally, the show works best when the music leans into a phony, synthetic ‘eighties pop vibe; the more orchestral score almost feel too “prestige TV” for the intent.) It’s possible this show tries to do too many things at once, and some of those things are at cross purposes.

Imperfect execution aside, there’s something kind of winning about Comrade Detective, a show that’s…almost too good to be as bad as it’s pretending to be? Or, not quite funny enough to be as funny as it should be? Even so, it’s an odd duck that hits on some of my subject-matter sweet spots, and its short run (six episodes) kept me diverted during the psychological hellscape of 2020 for a few hours. Upshot: I give it a suitably qualified but generally amused thumbs-up.

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