By Andrew LeMay
Here in the United States, we don’t like to think that we buy into propaganda. In fact, we never really talk about “propaganda” whatsoever; that’s a dirty, foreign word, something that should only be associated with gloomy, repressive regimes filled with Brutalist architecture and totally alien to the hopeful land of opportunity where we live.
But really, we consume propaganda just as happily as the most loyal Party member in Soviet Russia. No, our government itself may not be directly producing it, but you only have to see a trailer for 13 Hours or the upcoming (and hilarious-looking) 12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers to see righteous American foreign policy onscreen. Even a film as awful as 300 certainly shaped Americans’ views on the “clash of civilizations” between the West and the East. We see these as films as just popcorn movies, entertainment that also inspires. This horribly warped perspective of ours is just crying out to be insulted and satirized.
There have been few films or shows so deft at satirizing propaganda than Comrade Detective. Created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, this shows not only jokes about the nature of whatever target it seeks to skewer, but also turns itself into one massive joke as well. We see this self-awareness as the first episode opens. We see actor Channing Tatum sitting in a cinema alongside British journalist Jon Ronson. The pair announce that they have recently finished restoring and dubbing a 1980s Romanian TV show named Comrade Detective. A buddy cop drama produced by Romania’s communist government as propaganda, this show leads us into the hardscrabble world of 80s Bucharest and the search for a Ronald Reagan-mask-wearing killer.
Of course, this setup is obviously bullshit. This show is not actually an artifact of communist Romania; it was filmed in recent years with local Romanian actors, and then dubbed over with English language voice actors. While this conceit might be see-through, it does allow the film to really stretch the absurdity of its premise. If we think what we are watching was legitimately created by an oppressive government to shape the minds of its citizens, there are almost no limits to what we can expect onscreen.
Comrade Detective follows the odd couple of Gregor Anghel (played by Fiorin Piersic Jr. and voiced by Channing Tatum) and Iosef Baciu (Corneliu Ulici, voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt). The pair are assigned to the murder case of Anghel’s previous partner, Nikita, who died at the hands of the aforementioned Man in the Ronald Reagan Mask. Fitting with the stereotypical buddy cop dynamic, the two could not be more different: Anghel is a hard-drinking, womanizing brawler, while Baciu is an upstanding family man from the countryside who is totally loyal to his country and to communism.
The brilliance of the series’ satire owes a great deal to the effect made by dubbing the actors’ lines with famous American voice actors. First off, if this truly were a piece of Soviet propaganda, nothing could steal its meaning more than translating it through the voices of Hollywood millionaires. Take, for instance, a line of narration spoken by Anghel in the first episode: “You don’t become a good communist by going to meetings, or reading the manifesto…. You do it in the streets. You do it with your fists.” Hearing these words in Channing Tatum’s voice is so jarringly disjointed, you cannot help but find the character both ridiculous and convincingly cool.
As we follow the two detectives’ quest for justice, startlingly obvious bits of propaganda pop out at every turn. When Anghel busts a cocaine dealer in the first episode, he makes sure to denounce him as “capitalist scum” and compares him to the CIA, who “import drugs to destroy their black communities.” The young man defiantly shouts back “Free market, motherfuckers! Only the strong survive!” before Anghel smears a fistful of the cocaine he’d attempted to sell in his face. During another scene in which a priest has been arrested for practicing his religion, the American ambassador (an appropriately cast blonde Texan woman) declares the man has a basic human right to practice his faith. “Excuse me, healthcare is a human right,” Baciu sneeringly replies. “You don’t have a right to a delusion.”
These bits and pieces of propaganda certainly poke fun at the heavy handed repression of the communist government, but that doesn’t mean Comrade Detective is prop-capitalist. To the contrary, it is every bit as critical of the United States and “the West” as it is of the Soviets. In the scene I mentioned earlier with the drug dealers, Anghel’s original partner, Nikita, asks them, “Do you want the streets of Bucharest to look like the streets of Detroit?” This is clearly meant to set up a fairly simple contrast between peaceful, tidy Bucharest and the supposed nightmare of a place like Detroit. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the inequity present in cities like Detroit or Chicago has to ask themselves: are people really more free and prosperous here than in communist Romania?
But perhaps the most potent barbs the show directs at America target our obsession with work and constant consumption. In the American embassy, Anghel and Baciu watch a pair of morbidly obese American men eat Big Macs stacked like pancakes on a plate. While investigating the American ambassador’s schedule and finding a gap of a few hours, they determine she must be hiding something, because “Americans don’t just rest…time is their most precious commodity. What’s their favorite saying? Time is money.” The communist cops’ suspicion turns out correct, thus not only propelling the plot forward but exposing the truth about the stereotype of Americans as obsessed with work and willing to do anything for money.
One of the most hilarious instances of this critique of America and its capitalist appetite comes after Anghel and Baciu discover a Monopoly set at a crime scene. Having no clue what it is, they seek answers from two people with an intimate knowledge of the West: Anghel’s parents, who were imprisoned for attempting to defect to the U.S. After they explain how to play the game to the men, Baciu, horrified, responds “You’re telling me that the purpose of this game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty, so that you may get rich? It’s diabolical.” Baciu’s indignation does hit on the truth about a game like Monopoly (which, interestingly enough, was itself originally intended as a critique of wealth-seeking) and how it shapes our ideology. But the fact that he says it to a harmless elderly couple imprisoned in the bleakest of prisons for their love of Western culture keeps the show’s anti-Soviet tone in place. Comrade Detective targets oppression equally, be it from secret police or real life Monopoly Men.
When it criticizes America and capitalism alongside the authoritarian Soviet world it inhabits., Comrade Detective reveals itself it to be the strangest of creatures: anti-capitalist propaganda that is actually funny. As we’ve talked about on this site before, radical or socialist media can often be on the dour side, and can often turn off viewers who might otherwise have an interest in its core message. And while this show is certainly not The Organizer or Potemkin (in fact I’m sure you can find plenty of good reviews from right-wing publications), it never really pretends or sets out to be such a film. Instead of providing us with funny propaganda, Comrade Detective attacks the idea of propaganda itself, and in doing gives us a critical perspective both on the oppression in communist Romania and the crippling greed that continues to ooze out of every facet of every American society. I don’t believe we are at risk of turning into 1980s Romania in the immediate future, but keeping such a perspective fresh in our minds will certainly help ward off that possibility.
And even if you don’t at first buy into this show’s anti-propaganda propaganda, you still may well start asking yourself the question, as Detective Baciu does in times of frustration, “What would Lenin do?”