Zelenskyy’s Presidential Sitcom on Netflix Is a Powerful Watch During Ukraine’s Time of War (Column)

Volodymyr Zelenskyy Servant of the People
Servant of the People: Everett Collection; Zelenskyy: AP

In a scene in the first season of the Ukrainian sitcom “Servant of the People,” the newly-elected president of Ukraine is attempting to get the attention of his parliament, which has devolved from bickering into a physical brawl. Gently clearing his throat and murmuring for some peace and quiet won’t do, and this head of state is too green to command much respect from those serving alongside him in government. Finally, he gets a bright idea. “Putin has been deposed!” he shouts. Everything stops. “I was kidding,” he admits — but he got their attention. Then he unpacks his leather messenger bag, finding a thermos and a sack lunch, before finding the speech he wants to give — one about how his spoiled, greedy lawmakers have forgotten that democracy means “rule of the people,” not “rule over the people.”

“Servant of the People,” the sitcom that ran from 2015 to 2019 in Ukraine, has become a striking document — so much so that no less an entertainment force than Netflix has placed episodes back on its service, tweeting “You asked and it’s back!” by way of announcement. If viewers had asked to see it, it was because the show’s creator and star — the fellow who announces that Russian president Putin has been deposed — is the current real-life head of state Volodymyr Zelenskyy. After having been elected in 2019 on the strength of his TV fame, Zelenskyy has become a global hero for his defense of Ukraine against the invasion launched by Putin’s Russia.

The stakes for Ukraine would be undeniable no matter who was the nation’s leader or how they communicated. But Zelenskyy’s videotaped addresses to Congress and to the global community have intensified the world’s focus on Putin’s war and galvanized support for Ukraine among people who had never heard of Zelenskyy until very recently. This has led to some well-meaning but misplaced statements of support, as in a poem by U2’s Bono read at the U.S. Capitol by Nancy Pelosi, or Oscar co-host Amy Schumer’s floating that she had wanted Zelenskyy to appear on this year’s telecast. The head of state fighting for his nation’s survival is, perhaps, so adept at using the medium of video that he seems to have made a reverse journey in the public imagination — from pop-culture celebrity to statesman and then back again.

In that light, “Servant of the People” is doubly interesting — first as a document of how natural Zelenskyy was as a crafter of his public image pre-presidency, and second for what, precisely, he wants that image to be. The only irony in the strikingly earnest series is the counterpoint between Zelenskyy’s character’s purity of purpose and the corruption and venality that surrounds him: Zelenskyy used his series to transmit both a sense of hope that Ukraine could be improved and a vision of a character, played by himself, who could be the one to do it.

On “Servant of the People,” Zelenskyy plays Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, a history teacher who goes viral after a rant he gives about what he sees as the nation’s rigged system is recorded by a student. (He has good reason to be frustrated; his father tells him, at the start of the pilot episode, that he’d make more money on unemployment than as a teacher.) When he tells his class that their ambitions for him are lofty, they inform him they’ve been crowdfunding for him; his last-minute grassroots campaign suddenly places him at the top of the nation’s government. The series’ early going concerns Goloborodko’s attempts to learn the mechanisms of power without losing himself; in a dream sequence, no less a globally recognizable figure than Abraham Lincoln urges Goloborodko to “Be yourself, Mr. President.” (Notably, Goloborodko is wearing a simple gray tank to meet Honest Abe, emphasizing his unadorned, no-fuss leadership. At war, the real Zelenskyy has addressed the world in T-shirts, achieving the same aesthetic effect: This is a man who has neither the time nor the vanity to shift his focus from the nation.)

At least on “Servant of the People,” there is a sort of performed humility at the heart of the Goloborodko character, who is consistently rewarded for the virtue that, for him, just comes naturally. At his inaugural address, he enters not by marching down the aisle of the parliament hall but sneaking in the back, forcing the cameras and politicos to swivel once they’ve realized he’s arrived at the podium without fanfare. “I’m not good at these things for the time being,” he tells his audience, “but I’ll figure it out.” He goes on to prove that his ineptitude at the phony pieties of government make him not just good at speaking but great at it, delivering a stirring address about how, as president, “one should act in a way that doesn’t evoke shame when looking in children’s eyes, nor their parents’,” underscored with a swelling piano and string score and riotous applause.

Inasmuch as “Servant of the People” resembles anything on American television, it’s “Parks and Recreation” — a show about how a hyper-earnest figure in government stands up for their beliefs. There, though, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope is (at least in the show’s early going) held up for gentle critique: Her personal qualities can stand in the way of her goals. On “Servant of the People,” Goloborodko’s primary challenge is having the wherewithal to face down a system determined to thwart him. His handlers, career government functionaries who attempt to show Goloborodko the good, materially comfortable life a president can lead, cannot understand why Goloborodko isn’t interested in palaces, hired cars, and, notably servants. “We serve them! We are servants!” Goloborodko declares. He’s a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” figure, part of a romantic tradition that, in America, has been fractured by our recent experience of living through an presidency in which an inexperienced leader fancied himself a mouthpiece for the people.

On “Servant of the People,” though, the romance persists; indeed, the show depicts Goloborodko as a figure with the potential to drain Kyiv’s own “swamp.” Occasional scenes featuring faceless oligarchs, presented as the country’s real power brokers, move from a tone of amused skepticism to mordant fright at Goloborodko’s rhetorical power; “I fear that soon we’ll all have to leave the country,” one of these shadowy figures jokes, pouring liquor into a gold-rimmed glass.

“Servant of the People” is surprisingly easy viewing for an American audience, in part because it traffics in broad sitcom humor: Goloborodko’s family, for instance, grows addicted to the luxury that being connected to the president brings, so much so that one episode concludes with the new president fleeing his home and sleeping, with briefcase as pillow, on a park bench. It also grants the viewer — especially today — a feeling of doing a frictionless sort of activism, bearing witness to an undeniably charismatic individual expressing an idealistic view of what the world ought to be like, and how government ought to function.

And one sees within it, perhaps, Zelenskyy’s glimmering ambitions for himself. A striking moment comes when a secretary dispassionately briefs him on what folders are used for what purpose. “You’re my fifth president,” she tells him. (Zelenskyy, in real life, is Ukraine’s sixth.) At every turn, the system, with its rewards for avarice and laziness and its inertia when it comes to real change, stands in his way; if all goes according to plan, Goloborodko will eventually be replaced by a sixth, seventh, and eighth president, all of whom accomplish just as much, or as little. But “Servant of the People” depicts a figure who seeks to break the cycle. Zelenskyy writes and performs Goloborodko as insistent on speaking as directly and as urgently about national crisis as possible, as insistent about drawing the eyes of the powerful towards what it’d be easy to ignore.

There’s certainly a lot about what became a self-portrait of an eventual presidency that’s flattering. Zelenskyy does a tricky thing with this series: He merges a clever adeptness for image-making with an insistence that image and persona are all phony, and what really matters is good works. One marvels at just how well he pulls it off. With the real-life stakes of his very real presidency in mind, “Servant of the People” takes on a resonance beyond media criticism. It’s hard to watch this show about a figure not just willing to speak his mind plainly but unable to do anything else and think Zelenskyy anything but a man equipped, uniquely so, for his moment.