While living in Siberia in 1999, I became friends with a Russian family whom I would gladly visit each week for stories, singing, and dinner. After dinner one night, they related a story to me about the moment they, the good Soviet family, had realized that communism and the Soviet Union had been a sham. It all had come through television. Under the Soviet regime, they explained, everything on television, including movies, documentaries, and most especially news, was created and controlled by the Party. When a news program showed the American president speaking, the cutaway scenes would be of slums, ghettos, and the most poverty-stricken places in America. “My gosh,” the mother told me, “We saw that and knew we lived much better under communism than those poor Americans.” When Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in glasnost, however, unfiltered, uncensored American and British news broadcasts suddenly reached their television sets. Seeing what most of America really looked like completely stunned them. “We saw how the West lived and we all knew we had been duped. Duped by our own government for so long. We knew it was over.”
Comrade Detective, a new show distributed by Amazon Studios, takes aim at one of the most enduring embarrassments of the communist bloc: its propaganda. Comrade Detective purports to be a communist-era Romanian police drama, starring completely unknown Romanian actors, which has now been rediscovered by Hollywood and dubbed into English by some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, including Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nick Offerman, Daniel Craig, and Chloë Sevigny. As far as the production goes, it’s an incredibly well-made cop show—especially considering it was made with the notoriously bad equipment and effects of a 1980s communist country.
Therein lies part of the humor, however. In actuality, Comrade Detective isn’t a rediscovered television show from Romania at all. All that “found footage”? It was entirely written and conceived in Hollywood over the past few years, filmed in Romanian, and then dubbed back into English.
The story of Comrade Detective follows two Romanian detectives as they try and unravel a murder of one of their fellow detectives. It’s clear the writers of the series, Brian Gatewood and Alex Tanaka, have done their homework not only on communist propaganda, but on Soviet cultural influences as well. The show’s brilliance comes from its outrageous and relentless attacks on the arch-nemesis of the communist world: capitalism. Inserted in almost every encounter is a reference to the specific evils of capitalism (as personified by America), including income inequality, lack of access to health care, obesity, racism, materialism, pornography, and religion. Faced with these horrors, the detectives express genuine fear and shock at people’s adherence to such a sadistic capitalist system.
A particularly hilarious exchange occurs in the second episode (“No Exit”) where the show’s protagonists have found a copy of the board game Monopoly. To decipher it, the detectives bring in two political prisoners who were locked up for their infatuation with the West. As the inmates explain the board game, the incredulous detectives ask in horror, “You’re telling me the purpose of this game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so that you make it rich?… It’s diabolical.”
Another episode deals with religion—what Marx called the “opiate of the masses.” In “Bread is Bread,” the detectives confront Christianity through their questioning of a priest connected to their investigation. Although it’s meant to be funny, the representation of Christianity (and religion in general) closely reflects how the Soviet Union saw it. Believers are seen as cultists, who meet in basements and worship a power-mad, psychotic priest who only revels in money and power. The detectives discuss how religion is for simple people who can’t understand the complexities and nature of the universe. When the American ambassador demands the Priest’s release from prison, stating that he has a fundamental human right to worship as he chooses, one of the detectives retorts, “Health care is a fundamental human right. Believing in an imaginary God is a sign of insanity.” In fact, the communist regime in Romania exerted considerable coercion against Christian churches, including jailing and executing priests, controlling the appointment of bishops, banning religious holidays, and prohibiting community service or any other sort of religious activities held outside of church buildings.
The overtly Marxist propaganda flies fast and furious throughout the show, but it’s the smaller things that are most impressive. Throughout the Soviet Union, young Marxists were taught that there existed two different types of humans: Homo sapiens and Homo sovieticus, the latter being the advanced man who had embraced Marxism into his being. The writers have done a splendid job making their main characters into paragons of Marxist virtue—with traits that look silly and ridiculous all at once. In the episode “The Invisible Hand,” a gang of young punks—good socialist men that they are—are practicing ballet in the middle of the street. As Detective Gregor Anghel, the tough, hard-bitten, Sam-Spade-esque main character, walks through their midst, he rises up and pirouettes better than them all, much to their delight, then keeps on walking like a Soviet Han Solo. Minutes later, he walks into a bar where the barflies are boisterously watching a televised chess match. At another point in the show, the detectives seek out a cinema showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Comrade Detective’s characters are the communist ideal captured in all its perfectly unbelievable glory.
Comrade Detective is smart, ironic, and hilarious satire that succeeds in pointing out the absurdity of communist propaganda. Perhaps the series wouldn’t be as funny if it wasn’t also true to a large extent. As the Russian family I knew testified, television had been one of the strongest mediums the government had used in duping the citizens of the Soviet Union. It takes a show like Comrade Detective to remind us just how absurd communist propaganda really was, but also how much it’s still being used in communist countries around the world to this very day.