Comrade Detective premieres on Amazon Prime August 4. Castlevania streams on Netflix.
Only slowly does it become clear that Comrade Detective, a star-driven meta-prank cop-show curio, isn't supposed to suck. This fact hit me early in the second episode, a full hour into this squirmiest of prestige streaming series, when the comedy's winking premise — that we're watching a well-regarded but propagandistic Romanian cop show from the 1980s, dubbed over with earnest new performances by Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jenny Slate — suddenly flowered into something fascinating.
Shot in Romania but voice-acted by a second cast here, Comrade Detective plays, in its pilot, like a concept in search of an execution. There are some visual gags about Jordache and Pepsi and teensy Eastern-bloc cars, and the villain is a serial killer in a Reagan mask, but the show we're watching has been crafted to resemble the show the premise purports it is: a grim, dated procedural. That means that the pilot deadpans through underwhelming action and familiar police-drama beats, punctuated with scenes of unconvincing brutality — lead cop Gregor (embodied by Florin Piersic Jr. but voiced by Channing Tatum), a proud Communist and nationalist, kicks the hell out of every suspect and informant. The violence isn't as explicit as today's TV standard, but the voice cast noisily commits to the victims' screams and gurgles. I kept cranking down the volume and wondering whether I was supposed to be laughing.
But then came Monopoly. The second episode is a marked improvement, opening with a tense border-crossing standoff that reveals creators Brian Gatewood and Alex Tanaka (and series director Rhys Thomas) finding both their tone and their subject. Considered from the other side of the Iron Curtain, played-out Cold War suspense scenes actually have some play left. Soon, our detectives — Gregor and his country-boy Russian colleague, Iosef (the body of Corneliu Ulici and the voice by Gordon-Levitt), behold shocking contraband somehow smuggled into Romania: a copy of the famous Parker Bros. board game. (Gregor pronounces it "Mono-Poly.") Recognizing this as a potentially dangerous tool of American indoctrination, Gregor turns to a pair of convicted enemies of the state, whom he knows will have expertise in the specifics: his parents, West-curious intellectuals locked up because he himself informed on them. Their verdict: "After the financial collapse of America, the Great Depression of 1929, the populace began to lose faith in the capitalist system. So they invented this game to rebuild trust.” And: “Only when your opponents have no money left and are completely in your debt — then, and only then, do you win the game.”
Comrade Detective is not a sendup of Romania, home of some of the world's great filmmakers and also many cheap-o Hollywood productions. Instead its satiric target tends to be propaganda itself, the Communists' idea of the United States as a racist, materialistic cowboy cocainescape. (They’re not always inaccurate.) And it's also about the blunt artlessness of the Communists' own propaganda efforts. The heroes — their dialogue purportedly written 30 years ago to please apparatchiks — often tout the modern amenities of life in Bucharest. When a suspect gets shot, one cop sneers, “You happy? Not even our health-care system can save him now.” Another notes, when the case seems to be pointing back to their own department, “There’s no such thing as a corrupt police officer in Romania. It could be the work of subversives.”
Some of the best scenes concern the detectives' efforts to shut down a priest's Bible-smuggling ring. A secret Christian church service is lit and shot something like the dramatized satanic rituals of an ’80s Geraldo Rivera special, all ominous chanting and goblets spilling red fluid. Interrogating a Christian baker, one of the detectives insists, between nibbles of bread, that transubstantiation is “an absurd superstition.” The baker freaks the cops out by responding, “Let’s hope so — or the two of you will have just eaten the flesh of a man.”
The jokes are more prickling than hilarious, though I do cherish the recurring gag of the extras — street vendors and security guards — being given the dopiest lines, voiced by the weakest actors. (During a fiery sequence of vehicular mayhem, one incidental motorist exclaims, “If we don’t get these cabbages to the hospital, that child is going to die!”) But the series becomes more persuasive, more cutting, more twisty and resonant as it goes. Sometimes it seems to be satirizing the very idea of the grim-dumb cable TV noir, the True Detectives of the world, in which embittered cops are all that’s holding back the end of human decency itself. As in True Detective, the concerned officers are rewarded with the bodies of nude women, sometimes dead — is that a joke about Romanian TV? About today’s cable? A mandate from the producers to help secure financing?
In the end, the show’s subject is something more pressing than the goofy stiffness of Communist culture, or the neon wantonness of capitalism. Instead, the series lampoons a terrifying commonality: a yearning for authoritarian fantasy that knows no boundaries. It’s no shock to see TV cops whaling on everyone they deem wicked, but it is a surprise to be reminded that, even in a canny put-on like Comrade Detective, you can be bludgeoned into cheering the beatdown of your own values.
Hell rains down, of course, and a hero soon rises, as one must in all narrative entertainments based on video games. But the vivid perversity of it all — demon attacks, showdowns with bishops, airborne viscera, corpses on spikes, gilded crosses yanked from basilicas to crush peasants and priests — is a continual marvel, the violence a feat of the imagination. The animation is in a minimalist anime style, all spiked hair and struck poses with little movement between them, the flourishes saved for the big moments. These often are the crisply staged fights; with his whip and his swords, the hero, Byronic vampire killer Trevor Belmont (voiced with surly weariness by Richard Armitage), faces off against a cyclops, a pitchfork-wielding mob wielding, wicked representatives of the church, or an undead lordling he calls “Floating Vampire Jesus.”
It’s rare that a TV series touts its writer as prominently as this adaptation of Konami’s vintage vampire-killing platformer does: Here, “Written by Warren Ellis” is practically part of the Castlevania logo. The storied comics author (Transmetropolitan, Planetary and many more) is working within the slapdash lore of a mostly nonsensical game series, but he stamps every scene with his big ideas, expansive action and earthy — even filthy — wit. Both this and Comrade Detective feature too much discussion of “goatfucking,” but here’s credit where it’s due: When things get really nuts, Ellis has Belmont coin the phrase “snake-fuckingly crazy.” It fits.