Comrade Detective seems likely to finish 2017 at the top of my (purely hypothetical) Best of 2017 list, but just what is it? Not what it presents itself as, that’s fer shure. It frames itself (literally – there are cut-in scenes of the producers making these claims) as a recently- (and at great effort and expense) dubbed lost gem of Romanian Socialist state TV from … it’s never clear, but based on the cultural references, probably 1983.1 But it takes less than 5 minutes of viewing time (even less if you speak any Romanian – the purported notice from the state censorship board seems … incorrect) to explode that claim. The film quality and direction are just too good. Already in the opening scenes we get camera shots that are implausible at best for something made on an Eastern European budget and timeline in 1983. And if you had any lingering doubts, they’re pretty well gone by the time one of our two heroes defends the number of notches on his bedpost to his partner by (slyly mis-)quoting Marx: "from each according to his abilities, to each according to her needs." Yeah. Effing. Right. the Ceausescu dictatorship would’ve allowed a quip like that…
What it seems to actually be is a spoof of spoofs. It’s an American buddy cop show unceremoniously transplanted to Communist Romania for the purpose of spoofing lazy spoofs of equally lazy propaganda. As you might expect, it’s mostly, but not entirely, an equal opportunity lampoon. Both communist propaganda and American buddy cop shows get a sendup, but the American side suffers a little bit more. The underlying point – and yeah, OK, it’s a tad smug – is that American feel-good films of the 80s were propaganda too. I know, MIND. BLOWN., amirite? Fortunately, it’s not so much of a sledgehammer that it distracts from the other good here. Yes, the producers do seem to think they’re educating Americans on this point, which is a bit annoying – Channing Tatum is a straight-up moron if he honestly thinks no one noticed that Rocky IV was a bit jingoistic – but it’s ultimately slyer than that (no pun intended). For one thing, it has communists making a lot of valid criticisms of the US – that crime’s too high, that healthcare is unaffordable, that the US is invovled in a lot of aggressive foreign entanglements – in exaggerated ways. This is more than just hipster subversive, because it turns back in on itself. Ask yourself if – given that the violent crime rate in the US is admittedly pretty terrible, and given that it was actually a lot worse in 1983 – you’d honestly rather spend the 1980s in Romania than in New York. And of course you wouldn’t. But how do you know that? On the basis of pure facts, New York looks pretty bad compared to Bucharest circa 1983 (on the violent crime front). There’s a difference between presented figures and lived experience, though, and everything has a context. You’d hands down rather live in New York – it’s not even a question – but you still get the associated points that (a) the West is far from perfect, (b) many of our assumptions about life behind the Iron Curtain were likely equally exaggerated and taken out of context, (c) excusing all your problems by pointing to places where they’re worse is a lame cop-out, (d) all societies have their up- and down-years (after all, violent crime has gone down by a lot in the US since 1983 – would the Eastern Bloc have gotten better with time too?) and, most importantly, (e) that propaganda is a bizarre mixture of effective and self-defeating. And it’s really mostly this last point that the series is asking you to think about – and that well is pretty deep.
Propaganda always manages to tip you off to what it is. No matter how sophisticated, the dishonesty is always there to see if you look hard enough. And that’s because the catch is that to disguise it at all effectively you have to let the truth in and thereby give up a bit of your control over the message. When it’s effective, it’s usually more to do with spin. The makers get to decide what gets highlighted and what glossed over, and when you’re just playing with mixing levels on what’s true, you actually can make some pretty effective propaganda. On top of that, there’s just a human need for shared narrative that it plays to. This show works as a spoof of spoofs of propaganda – because while one level it IS a sendup of how silly a lot of it is, on another level it reminds you that you didn’t completely see though the propaganda you were exposed to either – not 100%. Everyone’s immune to propaganda to some degree or another – Nineteen Eighty-four is never really going to happen – but no one is completely immune. Or, perhaps more accurately, no matter how immune you are, it’s effectively impossible to ever get a wholly accurate picture of the world – and especially if your society is working hard to prevent it – and so the problem is less that you can’t tell when you’re being fed propaganda as just that you can’t always independently see through it to what’s real. And so in spite of the smug outer layer, this show actually is one of the more subversive shows you’re likely to see.
All that said, it’s unfortunately not for everyone. This is one of those things that’s either to your taste or it isn’t, and I guess in the majority of cases it won’t be. You either have the gene for this or you don’t – and it’s probably something where critics have the gene in general and the viewing public doesn’t. I loved it and will definitely be watching it again. Your mileage may vary.
So what’s it actually about? It’s a spoof of a buddy cop show, as stated – only in Romania and in 1983, and played mostly straight-but-sly. This ain’t Police Squad! or Airplane!. Gregor Anghel is an idealistic but world-weary communist Bucharest PD detective, trying to defend the working class against capitalist incursion. His partner and good friend Nikita Ionescu is killed under mysterious circumstances in the opening episode, and Gregor finds himself paired with Iosef Baciu – a square countrified family man who’s just been transfered to Bucharest from the sticks – to find Nikita’s killer. They don’t get along at first, but shared travails, and shared communist ideals, bring them together as they slowly realize that they’re in over their heads. "What killed Nikita" is just the tip of the iceberg as the two find themselves sinking deeper and deeper into the seedy underside of the city, learning in the process that the Capitalist Enemy’s tentacles are more deeply rooted in their society than they are ready to accept. Things ultimately take an unexpected(?) twist, and both men are forced to confront dark things about their pasts that they may not want to revisit. So, you know, True Detective. But in Romania. In 1983. Trust me, it’s awesome.
Perfect? By no means. It makes all the mistakes you’re expecting it to. It’s too heavy-handed. It goes on too long. I mean, I get that it has to go on too long – the conceit wouldn’t really work as well if this were "lost footage" of a film – but still. It’s over-the-top, and it can’t sustain its conceit, and it ultimately stops trying. By the final episode, it’s abundantly clear we’re watching a comic opera with American sensibilities; there’s nothing Romanian about this. In my opinion, this would’ve been a lot better if they’d played it a lot straighter – given us something that really did look plausibly Romanian – and plausibly East Bloc – from start to finish.
But beggars can’t be chooers, and I’ve really seen nothing else like this anywhere. It’s a genre-founder. I should give it a B+. I really should. But the concept is so cool, and so original, and they’re so dedicated to it, that I can’t. Definitely don’t miss this one.
Overall Rating A-