Despite the glut of new TV shows that’s come to be known as “peak TV,” it’s rare that a work manages to come across as truly distinctive. Although they often tweak the formula, many series stick to recognizable premises—family sitcoms, Breaking Bad-esque crime dramas, fantasy or sci-fi explorations. That’s what makes the overdubbed, propaganda-steeped ‘80s cop show Comrade Detective such a breath of fresh air.
Like many great ideas, the concept for Comrade Detective came about almost by accident. The series’ writers and co-creators, Brian Gatewood and Allessandro Tanaka, knew they wanted to dub over a foreign show in the vein of films like Kung Pow: Enter the Fist or Woody Allen’s Tiger Lily, but they weren’t making any progress.
“We looked at global television to see if there was a show to dub. In the fashion of the old way we used to dub Japanese films and all that. What we found is that we couldn’t get any of the rights to anything,” Gatewood recalls.
The two kept digging, however, and their efforts were rewarded when they stumbled upon a documentary about an entire genre of television the Western world had missed.
“We came across a documentary from the mid-’80s on PBS, where a university in Minnesota had intercepted Soviet satellite [transmissions] of [Soviet] network television,” Gatewood explains. “They taped it all, studied it, and they would do an update on it every week.”
It didn’t take long for Gatewood and Tanaka to become fascinated with these Soviet-era TV shows. While the West devoured endless films that Gatewood describes as “America is great, the Soviet Union is evil,” the very same thing was happening across the Iron Curtain—but in reverse.
“What [the documentary] revealed was this bizarro universe. As we were kids, growing up watching Red Dawn and Rocky IV and all these movies where the Soviets were the villains, [Soviet viewers] sort of had their own experience,” Gatewood says. “Just like this crazy parallel.”
Immediately, the two saw the potential in bringing this virtually unknown genre to Western audiences, but as had been the case with everything they’d looked into to that point, they weren’t able to get their hands on the Cold War relics, no matter how perfect their finds were.
“We couldn’t get the rights to any of these shows,” Gatewood says. “Like this show called 30 Cases of Major Zeman from Czechoslovakia that was about a Communist detective, and the show was made to prop up Communist Party ideals.”
While dubbing a pre-existing show would have gotten the job done, Gatewood and Tanaka quickly realized they’d have more freedom if they created their own series and overdubbed that.
The pair didn’t want Comrade Detective simply to be a satirical remake of what had come before: They wanted it to feel synchronous with late-Cold War Romania. To that end, the series is presented as a long-lost Romanian cop show that’s only recently been recovered, restored and overdubbed for Western release. This was the idea that immediately intrigued Channing Tatum, independent production company A24 and director Rhys Thomas.
“There was nothing ordinary about [the concept] at all,” Thomas (Documentary Now!, Saturday Night Live) says, explaining what drew him to the project. “It felt like it was completely outside of everything else I’m seeing [on TV].”
But if they were going to make their own, original Romanian show, they couldn’t just cast Will Ferrell in the lead and start rolling. They needed to make it feel authentic. So they went straight to the source.
“The entire production is Romanian,” Thomas explains. Other than a British director of photography—and the writers and director—the entire cast and crew are comprised of Romanians. In fact, the show is so true to life that the whole thing could be watched without any overdubbing. “We actually cut the entire show in Romanian first,” Thomas says. “If you squint, you could mistake this for an actual a Romanian show from the ‘80s,” Gatewood adds.
The creators all believed creating a real product was essential to selling the series’ uncommon humor.
“If it was just a gag, I don’t think you could sustain it for six episodes,” Gatewood admits. “We had to create a real story with real character[s] and twists and turns.”
To sell that “real story,” Tanaka estimates that “95%” of the overdubbed English mirrors what was originally recorded in Romanian. When the script deviates, it’s only to account for normal translation issues that stem from the differences between languages.
This is what makes Comrade Detective so compelling: At no point does it feel like some obvious American parody. The series gives the impression we’re unearthing a TV program from bygone age—a reasonably coherent thriller made by semi-competent propagandists. Despite the ludicrous concept, the majority of the series is played straight.
“As long as the intent of the scene didn’t change or didn’t mess with story or didn’t mess with character, we were cool to add in those little flourishes,” Gatewood explains. “We needed to find a balance between keeping many of the main characters straight and true to exactly what’s happening on screen and what the characters are saying. With some of the side characters we had a little bit more fun with in the traditional mode of the oddness that the dubbing effect can have.”
None of this should imply that Comrade Detective isn’t hilarious. While Thomas admits that “Americans demonized the Soviets way more than Soviets demonized Americans, in the shows [we’re] making fun of,” Gatewood says they intentionally flipped this paradigm on its head and applied “the Hollywood swagger and sentiment from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. [We put] that onto a Soviet perspective. We took it a step further.”
With real conviction the show’s characters deliver lines that could’ve been ripped from Marxian literature. The greatest threat to the lead detectives isn’t guns or knives so much as the seductive allure of American capitalism. Their struggle is ideological, and the show’s comedy comes from ridiculous, forced allusions to the greatness of Communism or the horrors of its ideological opponent.
When head detective Gregor Angel investigates a potential break-in at his murdered partner Nikita’s apartment, for instance, Angel remarks that somebody must be “trying to redistribute Nikita’s wealth.” When asked if a fellow police officer could be corrupt, it’s immediately discounted because “There’s no such thing as a corrupt police officer in Romania.” A major plot point has the detectives interviewing “subversives” to better understand the board game “Monopoly.” Though they find its capitalistic nature appalling, they play the game anyway so they can “think like Americans” and crack the case.
Despite all the mockery, Comrade Detective doesn’t exploit or abuse Romanians to generate laughs about their history and culture. In fact, to the writers’ surprise, the native crew was on board with the series’ central conceit. Too often, Romanians are forced to view their history in negative, bleak tones. Comrade Detective gives them the chance to have some fun with their past.
And while the primary plot of Comrade Detective wraps up nicely at the end of the season, Gatewood, Tanaka and Thomas all hope to continue the show long into the future. For example, these hard-nosed Romanian cops could soon find themselves embroiled in “a bit of a spy endeavor,” Gatewood explains. “Looking at these guys as [a Communist version of] Bond and having a mission each season and tackling different locations and villains and whatnot.”
Thomas—an admitted James Bond fan himself—agrees with Gatewood, though he also points to the endless possibilities that come with Comrade Detective’s satirical bent. Though the series begins with a niche premise, as with all great comic set-ups it offers myriad directions for the show to go in next.
“Because we are essentially visiting American genre films or Western genre films from this whole perspective, there’s kind of a huge menu of places we could go with it,” the director explains. “I hope to God we get a chance to do it again.”
“See Rhys is still a capitalist,” Tanaka quips. “Even after making the show, he’s hoping to God.”
“I mean, I’m a registered Communist,” Thomas fires back. Like all true supporters of the party, he’s loyal to the end.
Comrade Detective is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
When Jordan Breeding isn’t writing for
Paste, his work can be found on many other sites like Cracked and, technically, Twitter. His band is also on Spotify if that’s something you’re into.