“Comrade Detective” Review: Cold War Nostalgia With a Fictional Twist

from release: Amazon ‘rediscovers’ a Romanian government-produced police drama that never was.

The premise? According to hosts Channing Tatum and Jon Ronson, who introduce Episode 1 of the “celebrated” six-part series, “Comrade Detective” was produced by the Romanian government “not merely to entertain, but to celebrate and promote communist ideals.” It has taken two decades of painstaking work, Mr. Ronson says, and the pursuit of hundreds of dead-end leads across four continents—at which point Mr. Tatum begins rolling his eyes—to relocate and redistribute the legendary police drama. Mr. Tatum gives solemn, gracious thanks to the Romanian Film Preservation Society, which by every indication does not exist. Neither, of course, did “Comrade Detective.”

But the show now on Amazon is the realization of a rather incredible, profoundly funny and even poignant idea, a live-action cartoon in some ways, and certainly a masterwork of shameless appropriation and shoplifted style—the explosions, car crashes and camera work are straight out of the ’70s; the “leather” menswear looks like upholstery recycled out of a ’75 Chrysler Cordoba; the entire Eastern Bloc seems wrapped in ill-fitting polyester. It also evokes the kind of nostalgia that requires no firsthand memories. Just an appreciation for how propaganda works. How cultures cannibalize each other. And how media manipulation is a two-way, litter-strewn street.

There’s a familiar ring to much of it: Mr. Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt provide the voices of the two principal characters, detectives Gregor Anghel and Iosif Baciu (Florin Piersic Jr. and Corneliu Ulici ), antagonists thrown together to solve the murder of a colleague, committed by a killer in a Reagan mask (nice touch). Others doing voices include Nick Offerman and Chloë Sevigny, but the dubbing and the on-screen presence of Romanian actors—who are terrific, but virtually anonymous here—put the appropriately awkward flourish on something that seems to have been preserved since the ’80s, while getting slightly warped in the process.

“Comrade Detective,” being ostensible pro-Soviet propaganda, never misses an opportunity to trash America, a country founded by “rich white men who didn’t want to pay their taxes” and dedicated to spreading “greed and gonorrhea.” Iosif’s wife (Ms. Sevigny and Diana Vladu ) tells Gregor that her husband’s childhood trip to New York—a visit enacted in a way that makes “Death Wish” look like an “I Love NY” campaign—“haunts his dreams.”

“Sometimes,” she says, “he wakes up sobbing. Sometimes he lies there numb.” Iosif, who at one point is hit by a truck, has visions in the hospital that are equally nightmarish—his young children reciting, “I want my MTV” and his wife declaring, “It’s morning in America.”

Will he recover? “Of course. He’s receiving the best health care in the entire world.”

Romanian television of the ’80s actually ran about two hours a day during the week, four or five on weekends, and much of it seems to have been devoted to the magnificence of Nicolae Ceausescu. So “Comrade Detective,” by its very existence, is a joke about Soviet-era media. (At one point, a pair of border guards have to commandeer a radio to catch a performance by gymnast Nadia Comănici, presumably at the ’84 Olympics. Not even a TV.) But it’s not as if the ridicule runs one-way; behind the absurdist tone of Romanian propaganda lie some unhappy truths. “I don’t miss the poverty or the crime or the racial inequality,” says Jane, the assistant U.S. ambassador (voice of Jenny Slate, face of Olivia Nita ), asked about life back home. “I certainly don’t miss AIDS. Everyone in the U.S. seems to have AIDS. But it’s still the greatest country in the world,” and a place where politicians embrace religion “to get a bunch of half-wits to vote for us.”

At the same time, Romanians will kill for Jordache jeans and Pepsi, and the irresistible nature of Western entertainment is given its due. Romanians of the era would have been exposed to ’70s cop shows like “Mannix” and “Kojak,” and “Comrade Detective” reflects their influence. “Dirty Harry” (1971) gets quoted a few times and the opening scene of Episode 3 is straight out of “The Godfather” (1972). (So is one involving Gregor and Jane, who go out for one of Bucharest’s finer meals, bean soup with ham hock. “The best in the city,” Gregor says, echoing the Louis Restaurant scene.) Director Rhys Thomas shows admirable restraint in not applying too much period embellishment, or letting “Comrade Detective” become a one-joke show. It works as drama, as well as comedy, and it seems as if putting it together might have been fun. The finished product certainly is.

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