Netflix original The Indian Detective is fine: convoluted storylines, cheesy puns, frenetic editing, and a fascinating undercurrent about identity and ambition.
The premise is fun and unique: a Canadian police officer (Russell Peters, also a Canadian of Indian descent) visits his father (Anupam Kher) in Mumbai. He quickly becomes embroiled in several local and international mysteries. Peters’s character is named Doug. He considers himself Canadian, speaks with a Canadian accent, doesn’t speak Hindi, doesn’t consider India “home.” But the Canadian segments show how his race still other him, set him apart, particularly in contrast to his blond, blue-eyed female partner. In India, he is also an outsider (his father even refers to him as a foreigner), lost because he doesn’t speak the language or know the local customs.
But an early scene reveals the show’s overall problems: After recently arriving in Mumbai, Peters adventures out at night to get some food. The nighttime neon is garish, the crowds immense. The scene should feel claustrophobic and disorienting, but the overall feeling is “this was shot on a soundstage.” A soundstage is fine, of course, but the viewer’s attention is focused on the wrong thing. Rather than focusing on how the character feels, the viewer is analyzing the sets.
Peters is a stand-up comedian. I’m not familiar with his act, and I don’t know how much input he had in the writer’s room, so I can’t say how accurately the jokes reflect him. Hopefully the dialogue doesn’t reflect him because it is flat and predictable. (He has a fun, personable delivery, though. I like seeing him bounce off the new experiences he has in India.) There are fat jokes. Mild gay panic jokes (though hearing Anupam Kher say “it’s okay if you are gay” is really nice). A completely serious routine of “I’m sorry, he’s gone” “How did he die?” “Who said he died?”
The rest of the dialogue is filled with exposition. Every single character and situation is thoroughly explained. Despite Peters being knew to Mumbai and thus a perfect surrogate for the audience to learn how this world works, every possible detail is immediately laid out. In one scene, Peters visits a poor family. He compliments the daughters on their English and says they must get good grades. The oldest daughter immediately blurts out, “We can’t afford school so we are teaching ourselves. We hope to go to University one day.” What human would say all that to a stranger? Especially a young woman to a foreign man?
Overall, the jokes (and story beats) are incredibly broad, and in trying to appeal to everyone, appeal to no one. I imagine Netflix execs were nervous about creating such a “niche” show: Canadian-Indian, set in Indian, an Indian lead. But given how other niche shows have succeeded — or I shouldn’t say niche, but specific, set in a particular time and place (The Crown, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things), The Indian Detective should have been allowed and encouraged to pick a specific audience and employ specific themes.
The storyline does seem to offer an homage Bollywood, and I’m curious how that develops as the series goes on. Peters is a police officer; he wants to be a detective, but unfortunately, he’s not very good at his job. Certainly shades of movies like Dhoom. His father convinces him to visit by exaggerating a heart condition; shades of nearly every paternal character Kher has ever played. But the show moves from homage to stereotype. The Indian cops are disinterested and abusive, acting less like the police in actual Indian cinema and more like the police in Slumdog Millionaire.
Finally, the most important topic of all: the women. On the plus side, there are at least two named women. Robyn (Christina Cole) is a police officer and Peters’s partner in Canada. Priya (Mishqah Parthiephal) is a lawyer who lives upstairs in Peters’s father’s building. But. Both women are viewed almost exclusively as love interests, at least in episode one. Their first conversation establishes that Peters is upset Robyn has started dating a coworker, and later it becomes clear he wants to date her. Peters also regularly calls her “Bob” and is surprised to see her in a dress. Robyn is clearly a cool girl. When Priya appears, Peters comments in voice-over about how pretty she is. The audience learns that her mother is arranging a match for her, so that appears to be one of the plot’s primary tensions.
Both police officer and lawyer are particularly different professions for women to enter, but the first focus is on looks. Both women appear to be compassionate and at least competent at their jobs, but still need a man’s help. Neither is an independent person; their existence 100% revolves around Peters. Further, that Peters is interested in Robyn but she’s dating someone else is meant to show how awful his character’s life is at the moment, and explain why he’d want to visit India. Priya knows all about Peters because his father talks about him all of the time. Priya explains only he can help her — despite the fact he can’t speak Hindi or any other Indian language, that he knows little about the local culture, he is the only person who can help her save an innocent man.
The show’s mediocrity is its most annoying aspect. It’s not really bad or offensive enough to hate. There are so many interesting ideas right below the surface, ones I’m sure many people can relate to and would love to see represented in mainstream entertainment.