Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 is a movie so despised that people watch it as a feat of strength. Lame slapstick, groaning dad jokes, inane plotting—these are the qualities of a comedy that isn’t trying hard enough. However, they’re still recognizable qualities of a comedy, especially one with a spoof subgenre and plenty of sitcom-esque tropes at its disposal. They might all be used lackadaisically, but they’re not used incorrectly. There are misjudgments within a realm of basic understanding. That understanding fades away when considering the low-brow comedian cop series The Indian Detective, which becomes a case study in genre elements through its sheer incompetence.
Things start like a comedy. Indo-Canadian detective Doug D’Mello (Russell Peters), follows a lead, fails, and fails hard. There’re no drugs here, just children’s bicycles. And oh no, everyone’s taking pictures. It’s a wonder his pants don’t fall down. He’s a laughing stock. He becomes a meme. Then he goes to India when his father (Anupam Kher) falls ill and the story begins.
The chubby, schlubby, clueless Canadian law enforcement officer with a receding hairline and too much self-worth is a familiar concept here in the States because we’ve suffered through a pair of Kevin James vehicles. But this Canadian series—after a long tease of hokey dialogue—plays its character and its plotting straight, insulting its audience, its setting, and its genre.
The strangest part is, all the tools are here to make the show a comedy. The budget is low, the plot is ripped from a 1980s real-estate-driven romp, and the quips are milquetoast enough to fill the air in your average sitcom. They even have a comedian as the lead, and not an unknown.
Peters, whose career got its jumpstart when his race-based stand-up videos went viral on YouTube, is one of the highest-paid in the world. Peters is a comedian that used to critique racism in his acts. Or, he’d exploit racism in his acts, depending on where you fell. There were a lot of accents. But at least he tried to mock stereotypes instead of hock them.
Indian Express, in its review of the miniseries, notes the deluge of stereotypes: “You get a few cow jokes, noisy cab drivers, shoddy law enforcement officials and a whole of supporting actors who speak in an accent that will force you to read subtitles even if you understand Hindi perfectly well.” This isn’t even close to the show’s main problem, but it’s indicative of what is. The Indian Detective keeps the ignorance of a low-brow comedy in a detective drama.
Paul Blart takes pride in its ignorance, too. There are fat jokes, the mocking of ability, ambition, and knowledge. The Indian Detective follows suit and adds accents and names to its shit list. Hitting slapstick beats and the schoolyard insults of Blart-like comedy are actions that use ignorance as a tool, one loaded with irony because those films’ central bumbler usually comes out on top thanks to nothing more than his good-natured ineptitude. Columbo is great because he’s an idiosyncratic detective that still somehow always gets his man. Inspector Clouseau screws up exactly the right amount, despite the odds. When it’s set up the same way, yet played straight—when the ignoramus of a comedy is treated as the hero of a drama—well, you get the cognitive dissonance found in The Indian Detective.
The foolish, inept protagonist suddenly becomes an effective detective the moment he touches down in Mumbai. There’s no learning, no application of long-buried skills, no relief of constricting anxiety. He’s just good now. “Losers deserve a chance to prove they’re not losers,” Peters spouts, in a framing device so weird that it merits its own sentence. Sometimes they cut to him in an interrogation room speaking to the camera, meant to be in the future, but it’s so airless that you think this might be where they store Peters when the show ends: He just quips all night in an empty room if you forget to turn him off.
But yes, “losers deserve a chance to prove they’re not losers” is the ethos of the American sitcom and, allegedly, this Indo-Canadian drama—but it’s seemingly proved wrong by this show. There is no maintenance of loserdom. There are two separate lives, Indian and Canadian, which fulfill the “find yourself” mentality of a white college backpacker seeking to figure out who he really is while in a country whose language he doesn’t speak. It devalues the place as an imaginative fantasy world; it becomes exploitation. The claim that one can become a much better detective simply by going somewhere with slums and a developing economy is a condescension that would make for a bad joke if this was a comedy. Instead, it’s just another glaring misuse of familiar genre elements.
Not only is it one of the worst-edited, least-plausible series I’ve ever seen try to be a mystery, The Indian Detective is woefully written. Why does a drug cartel have custom matchboxes with a traceable symbol? Why are there so many gay jokes in 2017? Why is the hero, who we’re supposed to like, calling men he doesn’t like “ladies”? Why is he explaining what a “fivehead” is out loud to himself in the dark?
Picking through the rubble allows you to approach the series like a forensic engineer figuring out why the structure failed. The disconnect between wide-cracking sitcom writing and wise-cracking noir detective writing was clearly never understood by those working on the show. The resulting discord erupts in various ways. The machine-gun bursts of slum stock footage in between scenes are disorienting. The brief action sequences are cut so fast and so specifically to mask faces and heads that you can almost see the director walking through the blocking with Peters’ stunt double.
To recap, there are bumbling King of Queens-style quips, a serious mystery plot (including a surprising number of dead bodies), the transformation of dumb cop into great cop, and incoherent bursts of action after whole episodes where I’m not sure I saw a character walk. Throw in a cartoonish sitar-scored title sequence that puts the “ass” in “knockoff Saul Bass” and you’re beginning to see the natural syllabus this miniseries sculpts for itself when an enterprising genre studies professor assigns it in seminar.
Surreal to the very end, the Indian detective exchanges “bro” jokes with his coworker as they discuss the short window remaining to save their kidnapped colleague, then ends with an absurd punchline that solves the plot’s major mystery in a way so lighthearted that you question why they killed so many folks in India. Am I supposed to be amused or horrified? Laughing at Peters’ insults and rejected Shrek punch-up jokes, or smirking because I’m confident that he’s a cool, clever detective? Many shows are bad and many shows are inconsistent. Few are as transparently confused about how to use their component parts as The Indian Detective. In fact, it makes Paul Blart seem like an appealing alternative: At least Kevin James seems like he knew what kind of project he was in from beginning to end.
The Indian Detective is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.