I watched Comrade Detective, a six-episode Amazon miniseries, after a friend recommended it to me earlier this month. Chloe Schildhause at Vanity Fair answers the question “What the Hell is Comrade Detective?”:
After delving deep into the archives of Cold War propaganda, Gatewood and Tanaka took inspiration from hits like the Czechoslovakian classic Thirty Cases of Major Zeman. When creating their homage to shows created behind the Iron Curtain, Rhys explains, “We weren’t going in with the mindset that we were Westerners making fun of Communism. We always tried to make sure that, no, no, we’re the Communist filmmakers.”
As Gateway says, “We grew up in the ‘80s, watching Red Dawn and Rocky IV and all these films—not really knowing as kids that we were essentially watching propaganda.” Tatum recalls a youth where every movie “had a Russian bad guy.”Showing the reverse, though, is both “hilarious and really poignant right now.”
The series effectively satirizes both Communism and capitalism while maintaining expertly stylized cinematography, replicating a time when propaganda was overt and clear. Now, of course, such machinery has grown more sophisticated; the show’s creators note that propaganda has become more obscured, subliminal, and subtle. Gatewood hopes the show will help viewers “reflect more on the power of propaganda, and how it’s seamless in society today”—even as they enjoy a comedic cop thriller populated by characters who say Monopoly is dangerous, think baseball is boring, and have nightmares about young children chanting, “I want my MTV.”
Gordon-Levitt compares the series to ideas media theorist Neil Postman presented in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, which examines the negative effects of television on politics. “What [George] Orwell feared were those who would ban books,” Postman wrote. “What [Aldous] Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism . . . In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”
At the end of the book, Gordon-Levitt explains, Postman “does say, look, the way to deal with this is to just get people to understand it. Television doesn’t have to be harmful if people [are] aware of the way it is manipulative, if they were aware that you literally can’t communicate well-reasoned arguments and ideas through television by virtue of the medium.”
Incredible humor in this, but depth, too.