All hail the king of high concept comedy.
No, Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s next project is not a Guys and Dolls remake. It’s something even more ambitious. Comrade Detective spoofs the police procedural. The comedy series is presented as a remastered edition of a Cold War-era Romanian buddy cop show with Tatum, Gordon-Levitt, and their famous friends overdubbing the Romanian dialogue in English. While stellar performances are expected from an all-star cast, including Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali and Jenny Slate, the success of the high concept project hinges on its director, Rhys Thomas.
His name may not be as recognizable as his collaborators’, but the projects Thomas has been a part of certainly are. Over the last seven years, the film and television director has carved out a compelling body of work. He co-created IFC’s Documentary Now! He also directed the film unit for Saturday Night Live from 2010-2016, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special. Additionally, Thomas directed John Mulaney’s stand-up special, John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid.
His first feature film Staten Island Summer, scripted by SNL head writer Colin Jost, was released in 2015. On both Documentary Now! and SNL, his work is distinct in the world of television. His masterful execution of stylized material has become his calling card. The director’s self-diagnosed inability to say no to writers pushes him to create shows and sketches with incredible production value.
Thomas is responsible for SNL sketches like “Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders” and “The Hobbit Office.” The former lovingly aped Wes Anderson’s signature mise-en-scène, while the latter paid homage to The Office’s camerawork and natural performances. Although each of these looks like it was shot on a leisurely timeline, the average production took only a few days. Thomas’s ability to turn projects around on a tight schedule is one of his greatest assets. While Documentary Now! has a longer production schedule, the show still only shoots a few days per episode.
His gift for imitating the intricacies of a genre may lie in the director’s relationship to his audience. He has a healthy disregard for the viewer. This disregard allows him to pay closer attention to details that may be sacrificed by a network to optimize entertainment value.
For example, his favorite season one episode of Documentary Now! is “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival,” which is about an Icelandic Festival honoring Al Capone. It has many aspects that would make a network executive nervous. Bill Hader, the star of the show, does not appear in the episode. Fred Armisen, the other headliner, is only in half of the episode. A large portion of the dialogue is in Icelandic. It also strays from the series’ formula of spoofing a specific documentary. Under Thomas’s direction, the risks pay off. The episode is one of the most accessible in the series precisely because it does not adhere to the show’s formula.
Film and TV from around the world inform Thomas’s body of work. Born in Wales, he grew up loving American cinema and British television. Both influences are present in his work. The sweetness and imagination of 1980s Hollywood movies from Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis is seen in “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival.” The wit of BBC shows like 1994’s The Day Today, a news spoof, can be seen in the overall concept of Documentary Now! And now Comrade Detective seems to draw inspiration from Danger 5, an Australian comedy series. The stylized production value and use of overdubbing are integral parts of both. With the addition of Comrade Detective to his body of work, Thomas cements his place as the premiere voice of the high-concept comedy genre.
Comrade Detective is due out August 4th on Amazon Prime Video. A24, Amazon Studios, and Tatum’s production company, Free Association, produce the series.