Everyone's favorite actor explains the origins of his strange, pro-Communist Amazon comedy.
Twenty-eight years ago, a pop-culture relic was lost in the annals of time, caked in dust and debris left behind from the Berlin Wall. It was a state-sponsored Romanian cop show called Comrade Detective, which followed hard-hitting, above-the-law detectives Gregor Anghel and Joseph Baciu as they prevented Reagan mask-wearing assassins and capitalist conspiracies from rotting their Romanian motherland. The show served as nationalist entertainment and anti-Western propaganda during the Cold War—Romania's patriotic, pro-communist pride and joy that's been excavated from the ashes, digitally remastered, and dubbed over in English for consumption by American audiences.
That's the premise for Comrade Detective, Amazon's new show about a faux 1980s Romanian police procedural refurbished with terribly dubbed voiceover work from the likes of Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mahershala Ali, Jenny Slate, Kim Basinger, Jerrod Carmichael, and Nick Offerman. You'd never guess it was a spoof, as the "real" cop show was shot on location in Romania, with actual Romanian actors. Directed by Rhys Thomas ( Documentary Now!), Comrade has the gritty sheen of an 80s American blockbuster, but it subverts all that inherent nationalist pride and xenophobia by making anti-American communists the heroes of the story.
Channing Tatum hopped on the phone with VICE to talk about coming on board as executive producer and voiceover actor for Comrade Detective, our current political circus, and how he defines what it means to be a good American.
VICE: So: did you just wake up one morning and say to yourself, "I want to make a fake 80s buddy-cop procedural set in Romania that's pro-Communist and dubbed in English"?
Channing Tatum: I asked writers/creators Brian Gatewood and Alex Tanaka what their worst idea was. It was Comrade Detective. So we made it.
Was there a specific inspiration for such a high-concept approach?
Our love for 80s and 90s TV and movies, and the trope where every single one of them has a Russian bad guy. Die Hard—Russian bad guy. Miami Vice—Russian bad guy. Even Rambo III and Rocky IV. That was our perception of Russia: an entire generation growing up watching them as villains. As a kid growing up in the South, I never thought of what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. What pop culture were they making and watching? They were going to be making TV shows where Americans are the bad guys. We thought there was a lot of fodder for hilarity in that concept.
Comrade Detective works as a satire of the American exceptionalism and jingoism promoted in those Hollywood blockbusters you mentioned. Was that always the aim?
Propaganda is a real thing in our lives, and it affects everybody. This was an opportunity to point a finger at perspective and how relative it is. I think you'll find Comrade Detective hilarious if you're from Eastern Europe or Romanian. Americans will find it hysterical, too, because it's a different way of looking at these tropes we're so used to seeing. There's a lot of fun to be had watching it.
This year, we saw Cold War–era politics and Red Scare rhetoric reenter and dominate the news cycle in a bizarre way. How much did that influence you while writing the show?
I don't think any of us could've foreseen all the things that are happening now in the political sphere. What's been fascinating from my point of view is that these themes have been percolating. They're in the zeitgeist and the collective unconscious of everyone's minds, fears, and even desires. It was there, whether you wanted to look at it or not. Now we are talking about things like we are back in the 80s during the Cold War again, and everybody is freaking out. But we definitely didn't plan this or do the show in response to that.
How successful were you at getting your hands on actual Eastern European propaganda while researching for the show?
At first, we wanted to use the actual communist television shows, so we could make sure we got this right. We tried getting the old Romanian cop shows, but they wouldn't let us because it's their country's heritage art. They didn't want us fucking that up. [Laughs] That's when we asked how much would it cost to just go to Romania and shoot our own. I wasn't even sure what [series director] Rhys Thomas was going over there to make. I read some of the stuff they were talking about doing and I was like, "Oh, y'all are really going to shoot a legit TV show." Rhys really went and did it, and it's unbelievable what he pulled off.
I'll be honest: It took me a couple episodes to be convinced that this entire thing was made from scratch and wasn't actually a digitally re-mastered pre-existing show. It's that authentic-looking.
Look, I'm a shitty salesman, so I'll just go ahead and say this: I really like the pre-dubbed Romanian version of this thing. I hope Amazon makes it possible for you to watch the dubbed version and the Romanian version, because these actors are incredible. The actor who plays the character I voice, Florin Piersic, is so good, man. For all these Romanian actors to know that they were going to be dubbed and still care enough to "get it," and to crush this tone that's really tough to get—they're self-aware, a little kitschy yet still emotionally connected to it.
How much changed from the shooting script to when you dubbed over in the recording booth? Did the Romanian actors know what was going to be edited in later?
They knew it all, and they thought it was hilarious! We plan on showing this in Romania too. They thought all the parodies of communism, capitalism, and America were hysterical. They were all good sports. Creating this wasn't like when you make animation, where you could make up our lines in the recording booth while they went and shot some stuff. They shot this Romanian cop show as its own standalone thing, then we got it and dubbed over exactly what they were saying.
Here or there, we'd have to improv if it didn't translate. There's no word for "bullshit" in Romanian. So the actors would just say "caca," which I thought was just fucking heretical. We made sure that any changes to length or context wouldn't alter the plot or leave any gaps. You know old Kung Fu movies where they'd have this really long line, but the English dub would be two words? That can be distracting—hilarious but distracting. We tried to make that as seamless as we could.
Your Magic Mike films critiqued capitalism's commodification of bodies. You made a very under appreciated anti-war movie with Stop Loss. You were a submarine-riding Soviet spy in Hail, Caesar! and now you're the voice of a communist cop in Comrade Detective. Are you trying to tell us something?
[Laughs] I'll just say I'm as American as you can possibly get. I'm red-blood as you can find. But I don't think that just because you're an American doesn't mean you shouldn't ask yourself questions or question certain beliefs. Ask yourself why you believe it. Ask yourself where certain information comes from and who's telling it to you. Are these your beliefs, or is it an indoctrinated thought? When I was younger, I just parroted the beliefs of my parents or people around me. Then you grow up and ask, Who am I? And why do I believe these things? Am I just believing this because it's on the news that my dad watches every night? That's all I want for America in general. I want us to be diverse. I want us to have different viewpoints and perspectives and morals that coexist. That can only help people grow. Friction makes people grow.