Comrade Detective, a new Amazon miniseries, is a spoof wrapped in a parody wrapped in a satire. Filmed last year on location in Eastern Europe, the show is purportedly “a gritty, sexy, communist buddy cop show” popular in Romania in the 1980s—a conceit the producers maintain by dubbing English dialogue over lines delivered by Romanian actors. The premise provided the show’s creators with a target-rich environment: The show is able to ridicule simultaneously the buddy cop genre, communist propaganda, and communism itself.
The six-episode series follows Gregor Anghel of the Bucharest police as he teams up with fresh-from-the-countryside detective Joseph Baciu. Plot twists and turns have the pair investigating sinister locales such as the American embassy, tracking down smuggled jeans and Bibles, and confronting villains wearing Ronald Reagan masks. It is delightfully over-the-top, and balances layers of humor with the demands of storytelling. The main characters remain sympathetic even while being parodied, and despite working on behalf of a totalitarian regime.
The communists absurdly boast of their material success; at one point, characters describe shoebox Eastern Bloc cars as the world’s best, and Bucharest as “one of the most modern cities in the world.” This deadpan propaganda provides most of the show’s laughs, though matter-of-fact acceptance of authoritarian brutality adds gallows humor. In one scene, the detectives are waiting to interrogate an injured suspect, and Joseph tries to soothe an irate Gregor by asking, “What would Lenin do?”—a bit of communist piety that backfires when Gregor accurately concludes, “Lenin would [expletive] him up!”
At least all this brutality is in the service of a workers’ paradise. Ham-handed communist propaganda is easy to parody (I once heard socialist realism described as “Boy meets girl and they work together on tractor”). But the fake socialist unrealism of Comrade Detective transcends easy laughs, in large part thanks to its realistic grasp of the spiritual appeal and crisis of communism.
The West was denounced as materialist, yet it was communism that was an avowedly materialist system. And it was beaten at its own game; it promised material abundance, yet lagged behind the capitalist West in delivering it. The characters of Comrade Detective voice the propaganda of communist superiority, but they know—as the ostensible 1980s audience would have—that it’s not really true, and this reality drives the plot.
One response, depicted in the show, is to present communism as a more enlightened way of being. The reasoning goes something like this: The state ensures that everyone’s needs are met, so that people can pursue such human goods as friendship and love, chess and gymnastics. Communism doesn’t seek to enable material excess, like the West, but to provide the conditions for the good life for everyone.
There is something attractive in this picture of a guaranteed material sufficiency that makes the pursuit of higher human goods possible for all. But, as Comrade Detective reminds us, this too is a false promise. For instance, the goods of family life are undermined by the communist imperative to inform, even on family—a duty the show drives home with all the subtlety of an American after-school anti-drug special. The need for control inherent in communism attacks the goods of private life and precludes their flourishing.
And yet the allure of communism remains, as seen in the New York Times’s ongoing series of often nostalgic looks back at communism. For some, the millennial promise of communism persists, despite the atrocities entailed by its secularized eschaton. And so we need productions like Comrade Detective, with its multilayered mockery of communism. If it is true that the devil cannot bear to be mocked, then this show is a form of exorcism.
Comrade Detective is not for everyone. Profanity abounds, there is cop-show violence, and episodes three and four contain sex scenes with some nudity—though in the true artistic spirit of communist propaganda, they are about as erotic as a medical textbook’s illustrations of venereal disease. For those for whom this is permissible viewing, Comrade Detective is well worth watching. It contains a multitude of laugh-out-loud moments and a surprisingly sophisticated analysis of communism’s appeal and failure.
Nathanael Blake writes from Missouri.