You’ve got to hand it to the Channing Tatum and the folks at A24. They’ve figured out the right buttons to push with crime show addicts like us, dialled all of them, and pressed the red button labeled satire as well. Comrade Detective is the new show they’ve produced for Amazon Studios – available as a member exclusive for those with Amazon Prime – and it picks up on several trends we love at the moment, adding a new twist.
Plenty of readers are enjoying books like Stasi Wolf, which explore life behind the Iron Curtain through the prism of crime. Here, the destination is Bucharest and the year is 1983. Comrade Detective – aka Tovorasul Militian – is an authentic Romanian cop show, complete with shovel-loads of anti-capitalist propaganda, which sees detectives Gregor Anghel (Florin Piersic Jr) and Iosif Baciu (Corneliu Ulici) try to solve the murder of their colleague Nikita. His throat was slashed by a man wearing a Ronald Reagan mask after a drugs bust gone wrong. The metaphor of imperialism seeping into Romanian society only begins with the mask. A major clue in the case is the tag from a pair of Jordache jeans, illegal Monopoly boards are popping up in Bucharest, along with the drugs and, of course, bootleg VHS tapes and Western radio stations.
The producers probably also know that thanks to BBC Four and streaming services like Walter Presents, we are lapping up foreign crime drama. It appears they’ve uncovered a gem here, but rather than subtitling it they’ve dubbed it into English complete with big name voice talent. Tatum voices Gregor Anghel, with Baciu done by Joseph Gordon-Levitt of Looper fame. Kim Basinger voices the US ambassador – who seems to know more about the murder than she’s letting on.
Then there’s the retro vibe. From Life on Mars through to Fargo, some of the best crime shows out there max out on atmosphere generated through the recreation of recent history. Comrade Detective has nostalgic detail in spades. The streets, Soviet-era vehicles, clothing, food and indoor decor are all spot on. Like true socialist realism, the characters repeat the didactic as they should. The plot angle suggesting an inside job is quickly shut down because there are no corrupt cops in Romania, and when Anghel wins a round of roulette while infiltrating an illegal casino he says it was easy: “I always bet on red.”
It’s beautiful to see a tough detective perform a ballet leap and turn in the street, cheered by young lads. Later he comments on the tactics in a televised chess match, showing that Communist Romania is not just cultured but intellectual too. An extended shot of the US ambassador sniffing a pile of $100 bills seals the deal in episode one.
But then the show should be authentic, right? It was made in the early 80s by the Ceausescu regime. Ech, well… actually… As authentic as it might appear, Channing Tatum and co aren’t quite telling the truth when they pretend it’s an original programme once touted by Stanley Kubrick. They’ve actually hired an entire Romanian cast, gone on location, and made an original six-part series – complete with its superb period detail – and dubbed it into English. And, despite the rose tinting the socialist realist outlook gives the plot, the story manages to make it worthwhile viewing. The strengths and weaknesses of the two main characters mesh together nicely in Starsky and Hutch fashion, there’s a real mystery at its core, and it has the right amount of very well shot action. Satire, too. Did we mention that?
Will their idealism or their bodies be shattered by the hunt for the Reagan mask killer? It’s worth watching to find out. Comrade Detective is currently available free only to members of the Amazon Prime collective, which we admit is just about the most un-socialist collective there is. But it’s so good that one member of our team has actually signed up in order to watch. Perhaps later in the year it will shift to pay-per-view.