Set 25 years into Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign nation, Servant of the People may appear more edgy, silly, and conspiratorial rather than a work of comedic genius. But the TV show gave the country a president — Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian who is leading Ukraine as Vladimir Putin invades it.
Right off the bat, the show’s premise is marked by frequent cuts between the tribulations of diminutive history teacher Vasyl Petrovych Goloborodko’s unlikely rise to political power and mysterious-looking rich men breaking bread and sipping alcohol while plotting the future of Ukraine.
Indeed, none of these elements about an underdog making it big represents anything fresh or interesting in political comedy, film, or television anywhere in the world — the US had Idiocracy, the UK had Yes Prime Minister, while Kannada cinema has Danish Sait’s Humble Politician Nograj.
However, what makes Ukraine’s dabbling into political comedy a bonafide winner that surpassed its competition (both in reel and reality) is the primary creative mind involved behind and in front of the camera — Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The real and virtual Zelenskyy
Midway into his real-life political tenure by October 2021, the ‘outsider’ President, who had successfully run on a populist anti-corruption campaign to a landslide win in 2019, began tanking in the polls with an approval rating of just 24.7 per cent.
Fast forward to the days since the Russian invasion, and President Zelenskyy has completely transformed his image within Ukraine and earned a name for himself internationally. This transformation has occurred in a variety of ways, but above all else, Zelenskyy’s ability to be an effective communicator, with crossover appeal in both Ukrainian and Russian, has attracted a great deal of attention.
Prior to the start of his political career with Ukraine’s 2019 presidential election, Servant of the People had already represented the culmination of a comedy career for a seasoned Ukrainian talent who had done everything from winning a dance reality show to playing Paddington Bear and Napoleon. As pointed out by a Twitter user, Volodymyr Zelenskyy had built up a resume that, on paper, appeared “100% fake”, akin to a character from an age-old Tintin comic.
Zelinskyy's resume looks 100% fake.
* Law school grad
* Won Ukrainian Dancing with the Stars
* Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear
* Starred in movie about comedian who becomes president, then became president
* Source of Trump getting impeached
* Held off Putin's army
— Mekka 💉💉💉🎉 *My Mask Protects You* Okereke (@mekkaokereke) February 28, 2022
Also read: Amitabh Bachchan and Nutan’s Saudagar showed how women’s labour is taken for granted
Why the show wins
At its best, Servant of the People seamlessly combines a simple linear plot and sharp banter with an everyman message and references (such as endless corruption jokes and Goloborodko rejecting Putin’s Hublot watch) that may still require you to have at least a rudimentary understanding of politics and society in a post-Viktor Yanukovych Ukraine.
And Zelenskyy and co. nail this stylistically through the pilot itself. Vasyl Goloborodko’s leaked profanity-laced rant against corrupt Ukrainian politicians and the flaws of lesser-evilism could have referred to any country.
But Zelenskyy establishes himself as the only one to make the rant and the role work as he balances out these rude truth bombs with moments of dogged optimism and vulnerability that would not have looked amiss in an episode of Ted Lasso or Schitt’s Creek.
At no point did I think that I was watching an especially original or groundbreaking series but rather one that was perfectly executed and spearheaded by its central figure, marrying the risque ridiculousness with clever callbacks.
Also read: ‘A Thursday’ shows Yami Gautam go from Ms Perfect to Cruella of Colaba. But at what cost?
A brand of Zelenskyy’s populism
Often, one is told to separate the art from the artist, but, in the case of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s rapid rise from a phallic piano player on-screen to a real-life keeper of Kyiv, it appears all the more challenging a task, thanks to the blurring lines in Ukraine’s modern political history.
But regardless of where you may stand on the history of Ukraine-Russia relations, the long-standing impasses between Russia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Zelenskyy government itself, Servant of the People is, undeniably, the most accessible sitcom you probably haven’t seen. You can get started on its 51-episode catalogue by watching it legally on YouTube, and what could be more in line with President Zelenskyy’s brand of populism than that?
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)