The expanding enormousness of television and the pots of money being poured into it have created a new climate of possibility: The defining feature of the medium today is perhaps not its oft-stated epochal greatness but the room it has to just get weird.
A recent case in point: "Comrade Detective," a six-episode series recently premiered on Amazon Prime, is the sort of project that likely would never have been realized in a TV world without so many venues hungry for product and willing to unbuckle their pocketbook. The series was created by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka (creators of the short-lived "Animal Practice") and floats on the star power of Channing Tatum, who introduces and lends his voice to the series. It purports to be a lost Romanian police procedural from the twilight of the Cold War, "a curious footnote in the dustbin of a Communist history," rescued and restored after "a two decade journey spanning four continents, hundreds of dead-end leads, and the cooperation of five international governments."
It is nothing of the sort, of course. Like last year's "The Art of the Deal: The Movie," supposedly a never-aired adaptation of the Donald Trump book, starring Trump himself (an unrecognizable Johnny Depp, in fact), it is an invented artifact.
Shot in Romania, starring Romanian actors — with dialogue dubbed into English by a cast that also includes Jenny Slate, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nick Offerman, Chloë Sevigny, Jake Johnson and Daniel Craig — it's a sketch the size of a miniseries, a molehill made into a mountain. Its basic ideas could all be expressed, more than once, in the space of a few minutes.
And yet its size matters. If you're going to forge a copy of the Mona Lisa, you don't make it the size of a comic book. Ambition both dignifies and amplifies the nuttiness of the endeavor.
The tropes are all in place. There is the new partner, Iosif Baciu (Corneliu Ulici, dubbed by Gordon-Levitt), a family man in from the country and assigned to dissolute city-hardened cop Gregor Anghel (Florin Piersic Jr., who recalls the melancholic English actor Julian Barrett, dubbed by Tatum). There is the usual assortment of station house characters: the mocking dandy, the hapless comic relief, the superior officer (voiced by Offerman) too eager to close a case. Barring the odd silly image — fat American embassy workers gorging on hamburgers and Cokes, the Romanian detectives disguised as cowboys — there is little to distinguish "Comrade Detective" visually from a straight, if exotic, period cop drama.
It is not a perfect pastiche — the widescreen aspect ratio is wrong, and I do wonder if Romanian television of the late 1980s was quite this profane. Many jokes fight against the found-object elements, including a certification from what would seem to translate as the Ministry of Acceptable Entertainment. But this is a TV comedy, after all, not an art project, and laughs are what matter — though, to be sure, some of the humor is very inside. That includes an appearance by Romanian film critic and translator Irina Margareta Nistor, (later) famous for secretly dubbing Western films (which is not to say film westerns) into Romanian during the Communist regime.
There are jokes — not jokes in the world of the series, ostensibly created as socialist propaganda — about robbery being "just a neighbor's misguided attempt at redistributing Nikita's wealth." In defense of his skirt-chasing ways, Gregor quotes Marx — "to each according to his ability and to each according to his needs" — while Iosif, when he's frustrated, asks himself, "What would Lenin do?" They are so ideologically pure that when they discover a game of Monopoly, hidden in the upholstery of a car, they need to hunt up imprisoned intellectuals to tell them what it is. ("You're telling me that the purpose of this game is to drive your fellow citizens into poverty so that you may get rich?") Religious imagery makes them violently ill.
They live in an official fantasy in which chess is the sport people watch in bars and where kids in the street practice ballet, where crime is not part of the "national character" but the work of "subversives," where informing on one's neighbors is patriotic and where police torture suspects "because it works."
The superiority of everything Romanian is repeatedly asserted. They have "the best healthcare in the world," make "the best car in the world," cook the best food. "This bean soup with ham hock is so good," enthuses the American ambassador (Slate), on a sort of date with Gregor, further admitting that Romania's "literacy rate is amazing" and that "everyone is so good-looking and has such a youthful spirit."
Americans, for them, are the "people who faked the moon landing. the same people who rig the Olympics year after year." Acting like an American "means being underhanded and breaking rules." The USA is the land of AIDS and MTV; its president, in an obviously deliberate foreshadowing of the present day, is described as "an actor, a celebrity — they see him on television." Trump himself is referred to semi-obliquely as a man who puts his name on buildings in big gold letters. ("It takes many men to erect a building," someone objects. "Not just one.") Even as "Comrade Detective" mocks the far side of the Iron Curtain, it does not let capitalism off the hook.
The layers of this narrative onion make the characters more complex than perhaps was intended. Crafted to embody a political point, which is at the same time being skewered, they are doubly (at least) fictional. Played by humans, they are inevitably humanized, and at some point, the ironies break down and you care what happens to them, as people — people who don't know that history is about to roll over them. You want them, in some weird way, to see themselves, to wake up. They have nothing to lose but their chains.
Where: Amazon Prime
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd