Early in the pandemic, back during that period when we were all stuck at home and looking for distractions, I binge-watched a sitcom about a history teacher who, through an unlikely series of circumstances, becomes president of Ukraine.
It’s not the kind of thing I would have bothered with under normal circumstances (who wants to read subtitles during a pandemic?), had it not been for one weird piece of trivia that instantly hooked me: the main character was played by Volodymyr Zelensky, the real, current, current president of Ukraine.
Servant of the People began in 2015 and ran for three seasons, ending in March 2019, just one month before life would imitate art in the least subtle way possible and its main actor would take office. It follows Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko (Zelensky), a high school history teacher who becomes president after a video of him ranting about the corrupt Ukraine political class goes viral. He is assailed on all sides by forces which seek to undermine him, from his country’s prime minister, to a spy who poses as his love interest, to his own family, all of whom are united in their outrage and disbelief that an ordinary working man can be allowed to lead the nation.
Vasyl is portrayed as a passive figure in his own political ascendency; his rant from him is filmed and uploaded without his consent from him, and the paperwork for his candidacy from him is filed without his knowledge from him by his supportive students from him. He bumbles from situation to situation, his perceived incompetence of him overpowered by his aw-shucks determination to try and do right by people. It reads at times like a fantasy; Vasyl even wins the election with 67 per cent of the vote, an unrealistically high number for any politician, let alone an outsider candidate.
Of course, what makes the show special is the way those fantasies dovetail with reality. In the 2019 election, Zelensky won with a much higher 73 per cent of the vote, standing as the leader of his aptly-named Servant of the People party. Like Vasyl’s viral video, the series became something of a call-to-arms for the Ukrainian electorate to be a force of positive change for themselves.
In a show about a man who has greatness thrust upon him by circumstances beyond his control, it’s jarring to see how low-stakes the circumstances actually are when compared to the challenges of the past few days.
Revisiting Servant of the People in 2022 is a disorienting experience. At times it can be uplifting, as when seeing the fictional Vasyl stand up for his beliefs about him in the face of pressure to sell out to Ukraine’s secret ruling class of oligarchs. Zelenskyy plays Vasyl as a sort of Ukrainian Ted Lasso, whose boundless optimism wins out against a system that is rigged against him.
It can also border on chilling, as in the first episode where Vasyl is asked to select an expensive watch so as to appear more presidential, and is recommended a brand on the basis that it is the same one that Vladimir Putin wears. In another, Vasyl mistakenly believes that Ukraine has been admitted to the European Union and celebrates, before becoming crestfallen upon learning the truth.
These moments are played for laughs, and more often than not, they work. The show is very funny, even with language and cultural barriers. In one scene in the pilot episode, a mold of his right hand is made for Ukraine’s National Museum, and mold of his left hand is made for the country’s chiromancy (palm reading) museum.
In another episode a joke is made of the fact that his sister, who hasn’t been keeping up with the news, thinks that Vasyl’s presidency is a hoax designed to trick her specifically. His family of him are classic comedic foils, pivoting from disdain for their underachieving son to the realization that they can use his office of him to their advantage of him. It’s the kind of absurdist humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a late-season episode of Seinfeld. It’s just good television.
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It isn’t hard to see how, when coupled with the show’s uncomplicated message of political transparency and working class solidarity, a Ukrainian audience would be won over by the affability and earnestness of not only the fictional Vasyl, but of Zelensky the man.
The show does what only the best fiction can, in that it presents the viewer with a vision of a better world while also signaling that such a world might not be entirely out of reach. As a utopian model, it can be a little simple and reductive at times, but at its core it feels honest, and that is the beating heart of Zelensky’s strength as a politician.
Over the past week the internet has been set ablaze with stories of Zelensky’s achievements not only as a leader, but as an entertainer. He isn’t Michael Caine – he isn’t even Michael McIntyre – but he offers a natural charisma and likability that is missing in a world of Boris Johnsons and Joe Bidens.
There’s something very human about a man willing to risk embarrassment on a televised dancing competition, and something very endearing about him voicing everybody’s favorite fictional bear, Paddington. Servant of the People is a glimpse into why Ukraine stands behind a man whose enemies are desperate to label him a clown, unfit to lead his nation.
More than that, it’s a look at a type of politics that we tell ourselves simply isn’t achievable. It is achievable. It’s so achievable that when people like Zelensky successful, they are met with a kind of unhinged, desperate violence that does little more than prove them just and noble.
The first two seasons of Servant of the People can be found on YouTube, with English subtitles. It can be a hard watch at times, given the current context, but I can’t recommend it enough. As a piece of history, it’s a fascinating artifact of a pre-war Ukraine; as a piece of entertainment, it’s a powerful and at times uplifting reminder of the man behind the headlines.