Polls tell us that many Americans, particularly millennials, get their news from television comedy shows, such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. The same probably holds true for their knowledge of history. If that’s the case, then thank the Lord (or, in this case, thank Lenin) for Comrade Detective, the buddy-cop export from the dark side of the Iron Curtain. Though the show is a spoof, it does an astonishingly good job exposing the ideological fissures of the Cold War.
Actor Channing Tatum and author John Ronson explain the premise in their introduction to the first episode of the 6-part Amazon series. Comrade Detective was produced and funded by the Romanian government during the Cold War to promote communist ideals. All tapes of the show were lost with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Now, after a search of “two decades, spanning four continents, and five international governments,” they have tracked down the original master copies and dubbed them.
Or so they say. Actually, the show was produced last year in Romania with local (very talented) actors. It’s staged and filmed to evoke the style of Eastern Bloc television, complete with an opening screenshot assuring viewers that it has been approved by the Romanian authorities. The dubbing is hilariously bad.
The setting is Bucharest, 1983. Detectives Gregor Anghel (voiced by Tatum) and Iosif Baciu (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) team up to investigate the murder of fellow officer Nikita Ionescu (voiced by Beck Bennett). Gregor is a hard-bitten, hard drinking lone wolf, who believes “You don’t become a good communist by going to meetings, or memorizing the Manifesto. You do it with your fists.” Iosif is a clean-living cop from the countryside; he’s a family man with a loving wife and two wholesome children. Together, they hunt for the mysterious killer who was wearing (what else?) a Ronald Reagan mask.
From the very first scene, we see the ideological conflict running through the series. Gregor and his partner arrest two drug dealers. “The CIA imports drugs so they can destroy their black community,” snarls Gregor. “What’s your excuse?” When the dealer answers “money,” Gregor retorts: “For what? All your needs are taken care of. Healthcare. Education. Food.” The dealer responds: “Free market, motherfuckers. Only the strong survive.”
After Nikita’s death, Gregor and Iosif discover a clue: a Monopoly game set. They don’t understand its significance, so they pay a visit to an elderly couple in prison, who tell them that the game is designed to “indoctrinate young children into the capitalist system.” The couple patiently explain how players acquire property and charge rent. “You’re telling me that the purpose of this game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so you may get rich?” asks Iosif incredulously. “It’s diabolical.” After the visit, Gregor confides to Iosif that the two prisoners are his parents, and that Gregor himself turned them in. “My testimony put them away.”
Iosif confesses a family scandal of his own. His uncle fled to America. Desperate to survive, he was forced to start his own business: a car wash. “What the fuck is a car wash?” asks Gregor. “Americans are so lazy they can’t be bothered to wash their own cars,” Iosif explains. “They have to exploit the poor to do it for them.” He goes on to relate how “soon, one car wash wasn’t enough. So he opened another. Then another…. Now he’s a shell of the man he was.”
Spying on and turning in family members is a recurrent theme of the show. Iosif invites Gregor to his tiny apartment for a home-cooked meal, and proudly recounts how he met his beaming wife. “I was working for the secret police when her file came across my desk. Clean of course. But I couldn’t get her out of my head. I almost arrested her just so I could meet her.”
A few episodes later, after evidence is planted against him, Gregor himself is turned in by his son. His wife assures their children that her son did the right thing. “If your father is guilty, he deserves to rot in prison. And if he is innocent, he has nothing to worry about. He’ll receive a fair trial.”
Several scenes take place at the American embassy, where the same two corpulent men, symbolizing Western decadence, are permanently seated at a table in the waiting room, consuming mountains of hamburgers and buckets of soft drinks. The receptionist tells an impatient Gregor that the ambassador can’t see him because “she is very busy spreading freedom and democracy.” “More like greed and gonorrhea,” replies Gregor.
The American ambassador (voiced by Jenny Slate) tries to defend a Catholic priest (voiced by Daniel Craig), who has been arrested and beaten by the authorities. “He is a priest merely exercising his fundamental human right of practicing religion,” she protests. “Healthcare is a fundamental human right,” answers Iosif. “Believing in an imaginary god is a sign of insanity.”
No need for a spoiler alert to describe the climactic scene. Suffice it to say, it involves a spirited debate over Adam Smith, a strategically placed copy of Das Kapital, a gunfight, and — when the smoke has cleared — a gruesome new meaning for the term “invisible hand.” But a Romanian cop’s work is never done. After their success solving the case, Gregor and Iosif have little time to celebrate. As they sit in their dilapidated Dacia police car, a bulletin comes across the radio. There are “reports of subversives climbing out of a warehouse carrying banned copies of Atlas Shrugged. Possibly armed.”
“Just another day in Bucharest,” comments Gregor as they drive off to face the next challenge to communism.
Comrade Detective, for all its ridiculous plot twists and heavy-handed dialogue, delivers a searing indictment of a totalitarian ideology that once captivated much of the West’s intelligentsia (and still does today, though to a much diminished extent). Unlike The Americans, the FX series about two KGB agents posing as typical parents in 1980s America, Comrade Detective makes no effort to equate the two opposing sides in the Cold War. The communist system is displayed not only as inefficient – it cannot provide a decent standard of living to its people – but as immoral. It turns children into informants against their parents. It crushes dissent and personal ambition. It depends upon on a network of lies, about itself and about the West, to survive.
The series, notwithstanding all the buffoonery, also demonstrates a surprising degree of historical sophistication. For example, despite the repetitive paeans to communism, none of the cops ever mentions the Soviet Union. Portraits of an avuncular Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s communist boss, adorn government offices in every episode. But we never see any pictures of Leonid Brezhnev, nor do we hear his name. The writers apparently knew that while Ceaușescu’s Romania was a communist dictatorship, it pursued its own independent path. In 1984, when the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, Romania broke ranks and attended, placing second behind the United States in the medal count.
The producers of Comrade Detective have publicly taken pains to disavow any partisan bias. Co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, citing his vote for Bernie Sanders, reports that he’s “a Lefty,” and insists that the real target of the show is neither communism nor capitalism, but “tribalism.” Executive Producer Brain Gatewood, also adopting a neutralist perspective, sees the series as “satirizing propaganda and extreme ideology.”
One can’t blame them for their blandness. Communism was one of the twin calamities of the 20th century. Like its fraternal twin, Nazism, it caused the deaths of scores of millions. But, with the exception of action films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV, attacking the system’s catastrophic failings has never paid off in the entertainment industry.
Andy Garcia’s Lost City dealt with the travails of a middle-class Cuban family in the days preceding the communist takeover. It depicted (truthfully) a relatively prosperous society before Castro. It also depicted (again, truthfully) Che Guevara killing people in cold blood. The movie, 16 years in the making, was savaged by the critics and proved a financial flop. This year’s Bitter Harvest, about the famine engineered by Stalin which claimed the lives of between 7 to 10 million Ukrainians, has also received negative reviews. The Washington Post went so far as to describe the movie’s subject matter as “an early 1930s famine in which millions of people in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, are said to have died.” The newspaper was forced to publish a clarification, acknowledging that the genocide actually occurred.
So if you’re going to attack the central tents of communism, the best method may be to lampoon it: to use an approach that is more Hogan’s Heroes than Schindler’s List.
Whatever their motives, the producers of Comrade Detective have provided a valuable service, especially to young people who may never learn in the classroom how rotten and evil the communist system was. That system is happily gone today, although it exists nominally in backwater kleptocracies like Cuba and North Korea. Comrade Detective teaches us why we are well rid of it.