At the beginning of the pandemic, back when we were all stuck at home looking for distractions, I watched a sitcom about a history teacher who, through an unlikely series of circumstances, becomes president of Ukraine.
Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have bothered (who wants to read subtitles during a pandemic?) had it not been for one odd little thing that would have hooked me right away: the main character was played by Volodymyr Zelenskyythe real, current President of Ukraine.
servant of the people began in 2015 and ran for three seasons until March 2019, just a month before life would imitate art in the most subtle ways possible and its leading man would take office. It follows Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko (Zelensky), a high school history teacher who becomes president after a video of him ranting about Ukraine’s corrupt political class goes viral. He is being attacked on all sides by forces trying to undermine him, from his country’s prime minister, to a spy posing as his love interest, to his own family, all united in their outrage and disbelief that an ordinary worker be allowed to lead the nation.
Vasyl is portrayed as a passive figure in his own political superiority; his tirades are filmed and uploaded without his consent, and the paperwork for his candidacy is filed by his supporting students without his knowledge. He stumbles from situation to situation, his perceived incompetence being overcome by his damn determination to try to do what’s right for people. It reads like a fantasy at times; Vasyl even wins the election with 67 percent of the vote, an unrealistically high figure for any politician, let alone an outsider candidate.
Of course, what makes the show special is the way these fantasies intertwine with reality. In the 2019 election, Zelenskyy won with much more than 73 percent of the vote as leader of his aptly named Servant of the People party. Like Vasyl’s viral video, the series became something of a call to action for Ukrainian voters to be a force for positive change for themselves.
On a show about a man compelled to greatness by circumstances beyond his control, it’s harrowing to see how minor those circumstances compare to the challenges of the past few days.
goodbye servant of the people in 2022 is a disorienting experience. It can be uplifting at times to see the fictional Vasyl stand up for his beliefs in the face of pressure to sell himself to Ukraine’s secret ruling class of oligarchs. Zelenskyy plays Vasyl as a sort of Ukrainian Ted Lasso, whose boundless optimism triumphs over a system rigged against him.
It can also border on chilling, as in the first episode where Vasyl is asked to choose an expensive watch to look more presidential and is recommended a brand because it’s the same one Vladimir Putin wears. In another, Vasyl mistakenly believes Ukraine has joined the European Union and celebrates before being dejected when he learns the truth.
These moments are played for laughs, and most of the time they work. The show is very funny, even with language and cultural barriers. In one scene in the pilot episode, a cast of his right hand is made for the National Museum of Ukraine and a cast of his left hand is made for the country’s Chiromancy (palmistry) museum.
In another episode, a joke is made that his sister, who hasn’t been keeping up with the news, thinks that Vasyl’s presidency is a hoax specifically designed to trick her. His family are classic comedic foils that transition from disdain for their underperforming son to the realization that they can use his office to their advantage. It’s the kind of absurdist humor that wouldn’t look out of place in a late-season episode of Seinfeld. It’s just good television.
It’s not hard to see how, coupled with the show’s straightforward message of political transparency and workers’ solidarity, a Ukrainian audience would be won over by the kindness and seriousness of not just the fictional Vasyl, but Zelensky, the man.
The show does what only the best fiction can, presenting the viewer with a vision of a better world while signaling that such a world may not be entirely unattainable. As a utopian model, it can be somewhat simplistic and reductive at times, but at its core it feels honest, and that is the beating heart of Zelensky’s strength as a politician.
For the past week, the internet has been set on fire with stories of Zelensky’s accomplishments not only as a leader but as an entertainer. He’s not Michael Caine — he’s not even Michael McIntyre — but he offers a natural charisma and liking lacking in a world of Boris Johnsons and Joe Bidens.
There’s something very human about a man willing to embarrass himself at a dance competition on TV, and something very endearing about voicing Paddington, everyone’s favorite bear. servant of the people gives a glimpse of why Ukraine stands behind a man whose enemies are desperate to label him a clown incapable of leading his nation.
More than that, it’s a look at a kind of politics that we tell ourselves is simply unattainable. It is achievable. It’s so doable that when people like Zelenskyy succeed, they’ll be met with a kind of runaway, desperate violence that proves them little more than just and noble.
The first two seasons of servant of the people can be found on YouTube, with English subtitles. It can be difficult to watch at times given the current context, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. As a piece of history, it is a fascinating artifact of pre-war Ukraine; As a piece of entertainment, it’s a powerful and at times uplifting reminder of the man behind the headlines.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/what-we-can-learn-about-volodymyr-zelensky-from-his-tv-show-41407437.html What we can learn from his TV show about Volodymyr Zelenskyy