The Communist Propaganda That Inspired Channing Tatum's New Show
Inside the new Amazon show 'Comrade Detective'
There is no show on television right now quite like Comrade Detective. A co-production of leading indie studio A24 and Amazon, the six-episode series is a satirical mashup of tropes aimed at our collective nostalgia, political biases, and misguided nationalism, with a solid stream of self-aware idiocy that keeps the show from becoming an obnoxious lecture on patriotism.
Produced by Channing Tatum, Comrade Detective is a quasi-spoof of a hardboiled ‘80s detective show… set in Romania, circa 1982. Visually, it’s reminiscent of shows like Hill Street Blues and Homicide, except the police are chasing down criminals in communist-controlled Bucharest. And just as American pop culture was packed with fervent anti-communist messages during the ‘80s, Comrade Detective is meant to (ironically) glorify the Soviet Union and vilify the dirty capitalist pigs in the west.
“[Co-creator] Brian [Gatewood] and I grew up watching those 80’s movies like Red Dawn, Rocky IV and Rambo III, where the Russians were demonized,” one of the show’s creators, Alessandro Tanaka, recently told Inverse. “When you’re a kid, you don’t really realize that you’re watching a piece of propaganda. I went back and re-watched and through those we became fascinated with propaganda through mass entertainment.”
Those nostalgic binges led them to think about what kids on the other side of the world had been watching during the Cold War. “We thought, what were they watching, what was the version of this behind the Iron Curtain?” Tanaka remembered. “That was the germ of the idea, taking all the fun and the swagger of ‘80s cop shows and movies, but instilling them with a fiercely pro-communist point of view.”
Along with director Rhys Thomas, Alessandro and Gatewood went all-in on the idea, conceiving of a show that they would actually shoot in the former USSR, and then dub over with the voices of American actors, to highlight the disconnect and add another layer of humor. Tatum jumped on board and provides the dubbed voice for the lead character, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt joins him as his new partner at the Bucharest PD. Nick Offerman voices their chief. In between action scenes, they extoll the virtues of communism, resist the temptation of corruption, and deal with shallow Americans who obsess over Jordache jeans and other symbols of capitalism.
Tanaka, Gatewood and Thomas spoke with Inverse about their inspirations, the unique production set-up, and their ambitions for more seasons of Comrade Detective.
Gatewood: There’s a show from Czechoslovakia, called the Thirty Cases of Major Zeman that was sort of about a communist James Bond. The entire show was state-funded and made to prop up the communist ideals of the party at the time. It was a devious show, but a well
In West Germany there is a show called Tatort that is excellent, and in East Germany they would jam the airwaves so you couldn’t watch it. They made their own cop show called Police Call 110 that was more in line with sort of East German values, and used as a propaganda tool. There was also a show from Italy called La Piovra that’s really excellent. It actually was shown a lot in Eastern Europe, it somehow slipped behind the Iron Curtain a little bit.
In 1987, a bunch of Soviet and American filmmakers met for a conference to talk about how they demonized each other, and the Soviets were amazed at just how villainous the Americans made the Soviets look. We were actually good at making bad, terrible villains, iconic villains, really, for America.
Thomas: They were way better at propaganda than we are. They didn’t demonize, but they were propping up communist party lines versus demonizing America, that was sort of less prevalent.
Mashing Up Rambo and Russia
Because the propaganda on TV was more subtle in the USSR, the minds behind Comrade Detective had to amp up some of the satire to make it work for western audiences (and make clear they were making a spoof).
Gatewood: There’s an example of a more overt demonization of America in a film called The Detached Mission from 1985 that was the Soviet answer to Rambo. It begins with a bunch of American military defense contractors scheming a plot on golf courses on Florida to infiltrate them and sort of blame a tragic event on the Soviets.
Thomas: It’s actually really funny, though, because the tragic event is just blowing up some civilians who are out pleasure cruising on like a yacht. The Americans blast them out of the water and they try to blame the Russians for it.
Gatewood: And for our show, we intended to do something that applied that sort of swagger and confidence of ‘70s and ‘80s filmmaking in America and applying that to a Soviet show.
Off to Romania
Thomas: The script wasn’t specifically set in Romania originally, it came through scouting that region; we looked at Hungary and Bulgaria as well. I went for a week and went to all three countries, and met with the people and talked to them about their experience of communism in Romania, and it just sort of felt right for the show.
Bucharest is not as overridden with modern architecture, there’s not big glass monuments to corporate culture. The difficult side of shooting in Bucharest is that there’s graffiti everywhere, which wouldn’t have been there in the early 80’s. Literally every wall within arm’s reach is covered in graffiti — and not good graffiti either. Also there are cars everywhere in Bucharest, like people park cars in any available spot, including the middle of intersections.
We partnered up with a local Romanian studio, Castel Films, and built it from there. The entire crew is Romanian, and obviously the cast is entirely Romanian. We had a British DP, but otherwise, we’re the only foreigners. The scripts weren’t completed when we went. We had an outline, so we knew where we wanted to go, but the completed episodes were still coming in and that allowed us a sort of flexibility. We scouted and talked to crew and cast, and were hearing their stories.
Gatewood: We wanted to make sure there was Romanian input on what we were doing and that we were making it together. We had a great working relationship with them. The dubbing process was really fun and fascinating, but I don’t think anything could top making the show, the initial document in Romania.
Tanaka: They told us little stories. Apparently they all thought that every American pretty much had AIDS and they were definitely afraid of bumping into an American or a Westerner for fear of getting AIDS. It was like things like that that then you just kind of weave in matter-of-factly into the script.
Shaping the Script
Gatewood: We worked with a Romanian writer who helped us adapt to the language and help figure out intent in each scene and we were constantly making sure that the actors were all on the same page of what we needed out of the scene, where the joke was, and if they had thoughts on that that were specific to their experiences we tried to incorporate that.
Tanaka: We wanted to do a 100 percent direct translation, but it got a little bit tricky. The Romanian language has a bit of a limited vocabulary and English, especially in America and all those cop shows, we talk with a lot of slang. A lot of the time it was making sure things were not taken literally.
Gatewood: We came in very clear that we wanted to do it respectfully and really only do it with their approval and contributions. It was never our intention to look at it in like a silly way. We were trying to make it a larger point about propaganda and that propaganda can come from anywhere.
Finding Voices (or Lack Thereof)
Thomas: Early on, I was definitely self-conscious about it in casting. I think that early on the message sort of did go out that it was going to be over-dubbed and people were coming in and it was a little weird. I remember overhearing one actor sort of reassuring another one like, “Oh don’t worry about it, they’re going to overdub it anyway or whatever.”
It bummed me out, this energy was starting abate. So I quickly tried to reassure them and let them know that, no, like we’re making this as a Romanian show first and foremost and that [an undubbed version] will exist. That went away pretty quickly, so everybody was full in it and committed to making a show.
Tanaka: We have the Romanian version, which is in time going to be shown in Romania, no dubbing, just the original show. That was always our intention was to make two shows, one that could still be shown in the original Romanian and then one that could be dubbed here in English.
Thomas: We didn’t want to make it an exercise in dubbing, like the gimmick is that it’s dubbed. That’s a texture but we sort of realized that’s not a sustainable gimmick that’s going to carry you through six episodes of the show. Our goal is hopefully that you kind of forget that the voices are different after you’ve been in the show for a moment.
On a Potential Season Two
Gatewood: We’d love to. We’re ready to go, we’re just hoping we get an opportunity to do it. We’ll probably mess with a little bit of a new genre in it, taking our same two leads. We have a potential Bond series.
Thomas: What we did this season is look at these genre films that we all loved from the ‘70s and ‘80s and sort of retell them or use those tropes with a different perspective. We really came to love the Gregor and Joseph characters. It has like a limitless possibilities of really diving into different areas of action, thriller/espionage, because there will be the Romanian super men.