It’s Kyiv, a week out from the election. We hear, but barely see, three shadowy, tuxedo-wearing figures discussing what the outcome will be. Their conversation makes it clear: it is wealthy men like this who decide who gets to be president of Ukraine. Over their shoulders, past the balcony, the goddess Berehynia lifts her arms to heaven, glowing golden and distant under the floodlights, surging from the centre of Independence Square. Then one of the men hits upon a novel idea: this time, for fun, why not actually allow the voters to decide the final outcome? “Uncontrollable democracy? I love this game!” one mirthlessly laughs.
So opens Servant of the People, a show about a non-politician who is swept unexpectedly to the Ukrainian presidency. It premiered in 2015, roughly four years before its star, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was swept unexpectedly to the actual Ukrainian presidency. Now that Russia has invaded and Ukraine is at war, the story of the naive but good-hearted man trying to change a system he doesn’t fully grasp plays as unbearably poignant.
Zelenskyy plays history teacher Vasyl Goloborodko. On election day, as he scrambles to get to school on time, Prime Minister Yury Ivanovich arrives at the chaotic house Vasyl shares with his parents and niece to tell him he’s just won the presidential election.
A video of Vasyl ranting against the corruption and indifference of Ukraine’s political class has gone viral, whipping up widespread support and a push for him to run for office. Absent the meddling of faceless oligarchs, Vasyl wins.
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Servant of the People made me genuinely laugh at least once per episode (given I was watching Ukrainian political satire with auto-generated subtitles on YouTube, that is a serious and genuine compliment) and breezed by amiably enough in between.
The show is at its funniest in its early stages during the period when Vasyl is being “inducted” as president, which Zelenskyy plays with a Chaplinesque bafflement. On his first day, he does a rapid-fire series of costumed photo shoots with extras in front of a green screen (“The president listens to the working class!”, “the president thinks about medicine!”) and then meets his staff, including a eerie, plastic-surgery-crafted doppelganger who will fill in on the really dangerous jobs, like “drinking with Alexander Lukashenko”.
The sequence gives us the first of a couple of jokes about Vladimir Putin. Goloborodko is being shown high end watches, the kind of accessories needed by any world leader, and is told Putin wears a Hublot.
“Putin’s a Hublot?” he responds. Ivanovich confirms he is. The joke is that “Putin’s a Hublot” sounds a lot like “Putin Huylo”, (or “Putin’s a dick”) a chant that spread through Ukraine after the last conflict between the two countries. The gag was cut from Russian broadcasts, before the whole show was ultimately removed altogether after Zelenskyy won election in real life. “Putin doesn’t watch TV shows,” the Kremlin insisted when they were asked if they’d had anything to do with it.
Like Zelenskyy himself, the show’s politics are decidedly populist, and many of its best gags are at the expense of impenetrable bureaucracy. After being introduced to an endless list of heads of department (culminating in the heads of department for foreign affairs, for humanitarian politics, and for humanitarian politics in foreign affairs), Vasyl suggests that the sprawling system might need reform. He is promptly introduced to the head of the newly formed department for reform.
Corruption, whether in matters of state or petty day-to-day interactions with low-level authority, permeates everything in Servant of the People. In another standout scene, we have a cop pulling over Vasyl’s father — clearly expecting to extort some lunch money out of a citizen. Upon seeing who he’s pulled over, he has to improvise his way out of giving him a ticket. The traffic sign Vasyl’s dad failed to heed is “experimental”, as it turns out.
Of course the fictional hero president sets traps for the real one. We can only assume, for example, that Zelenskyy did not fire his security detail as Vasyl does (or if he did, that they have been swiftly reinstated in recent months).
And if the show sees the irony of a guy who fulfills his promise to clear out the graft and corruption of the existing cabinet, only to replace them with childhood friends and his ex, Vasyl certainly doesn’t.
They are, of course, initially shit at their jobs. Vasyl’s pick for foreign minister (a school friend whose previous career is as an actor in soap operas and laxative commercials) causes an international incident by telling an unbroadcastable joke about Uganda on his first day. But on the real issues Vasyl’s judgement is completely vindicated. His picks are all almost immediately offered a bribe, and all say no without a second thought.
Indeed it may be the show’s greatest comedic weakness — it’s protagonists are too incorruptible. Think more Parks and Recreation’s collection of thoroughly decent eccentrics than the conniving egomaniacs of The Thick of It. Perhaps in the feature-length sequel or the short third series, Vasyl is forced into compromises he never thought himself capable of, but I doubt it. What dampens the comedy may be what delivered Zelenskyy the presidency.
Season one aired pre-Trump, pre-Brexit, pre-COVID. To Western viewers, it’s an almost unimaginably different time. In Ukraine, it was roughly a year since the audience had weathered a revolution that had ousted a president, a civil war and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. It’s in those teeth that a pointed but basically optimistic political satire thrived.
In the show, Vasyl and his ragtag cabinet outsmart the shadowy figures seeking to corrupt them and triumphantly return to their office in slow motion. In reality, Donald Trump calls and asks you to investigate his political opponent’s son, and if you want $400 million in aid, you have to at least give the impression you’re willing to do it.
In the show, world powers immediately comment on a change of leadership in Ukraine. In reality, you have to beg them to stop talking about your imminent invasion as though it’s inevitable, knowing how little appetite any of them have for coming to your aid. Meanwhile your citizens write their children’s blood type on their school bags, just in case.
But who the hell would vote for a guy who told them that?