The most unbelievable part of our two or three various simultaneously unfolding apocalypses is that every one of them is so ready for social media. Ten seconds after something breaks, the takes are flying on Twitter faster than Will Smith’s open hand. Immediately there’s a good guy and a bad guy, there’s a good take and a bad take. There will be calls for more nuance at some point, after the discussion has descended into insanity and the whole situation becomes another ongoing, sucking chest wound in the collective body of humanity that all at once can never be healed, yet somehow manages to not just end all of our collective suffering. Anyway, if you have Netflix, you can now watch the first season of the Ukrainian sitcom where Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy, who is the president of Ukraine, portrayed the president of Ukraine prior to becoming the president of Ukraine (which, I do not know if I mentioned, he currently is).
And it’s really funny! Even if you aren’t up on the geopolitics of the nations that surround the Black Sea! Or the various and sundry failures of humanity that have led to Russia invading Ukraine and in the process murdering thousands, displacing millions, and sidling the whole world more closely up to the precipice of World War III than it’s been in the last 60 years!
Zelenskyy was a comedic actor with a law degree prior to his political career, and in some ways his own trajectory is mirrored by the series (or rather, the other way around). In Servant of the People, Zelenskyy plays Vasiliy Petrovich Holoborodko, a history teacher whose profanity-laden rant about the shameful state of Ukrainian politics is captured by a student and posted to YouTube, resulting in the obscure man’s sudden superstardom and his upset victory in the country’s presidential election. In real life, Zelenskyy portrayed the character across three seasons of television, with the show ending in 2019, the same year he took office as president in real life.
The show is a sitcom, playing up the absurdities of gauche world leaders and petty local corruption and dysfunction as Zelenskyy is dragged through the rigmarole of becoming a world leader. Throughout it all, Zelenskyy’s decidedly not-ready-for-primetime family and his own humble worldview and inexperience are the source of many of the jokes. The rest, though, are why you won’t be able to look away from this thing if you truly dare to watch.
Peppered into the episodes are bits of surrealism in which world leaders of history or philosophers debate in Holoborodko’s dreams about the conundrums he faces, or appear to him to argue or dispense advice. At one point, one of them is Abraham Lincoln. Zelenskyy doesn’t know Abe’s patronymic (or that the 16th U.S. president didn’t have one), and so stumbles a bit in addressing the Great Emancipator. At one point, this involves Holoborodko arguing with his own mental projection of Ivan the Terrible, who keeps insisting that Ukrainians are Slavs (that is, ethnically tied to Russia). No, Zelenskyy insists, “We’re going to Europe,” confusing and enraging Ivan, who insists that “We have the same blood!”
“Why talk about blood again?” an exasperated Zelenskyy retorts. “You’re heading one way, we, another. Let’s go in different directions and we’ll talk in 300 years!”
The show is filled with segments like these that are directly aimed at Putin and the last few years in the region, which have been marked by Russian aggression. While jokes such as a throwaway line about Zelenskyy’s double being on hand “to have drinks with Lukashenko or get shot by snipers’’ get laughs for sheer blunt black comedy, the events of the past couple of months have made them far darker even than they were intended to be. Ukraine and the world have known Putin has wanted the conflict now raging for years and years, and Servant of the People, a show that first aired in 2015, is at least partly a show about laughing at those anxieties.
It’s also impossible to watch it and not know you’re being told the most sympathetic story possible about a man who, whether his country is being invaded by foreign aggressors or not, holds the lives of 41 million people in his hands, who has made and will make decisions that will result in people being imprisoned or dying. Zelenskyy’s character may bumble or lay a foot wrong, but he’s fundamentally a good person who isn’t corrupted by politics or oligarchs and wants to bring politics back to a simpler time.
It’s impossible to separate the art from the artist here: Zelenskyy’s political party was, at one point, the “Servant of the People Party.” Imagine if The West Wing’s President Bartlett were actually being portrayed by Bill Clinton, or, say, another principal character from that show was based on a guy who went on to be a mayor who covered up the killing of an unarmed Black youth so he wouldn’t lose an election (and has somehow been named ambassador to Japan and is named Rahm Emanuel).
Zelenskyy has shown, even during an invasion, that he’s camera-ready: The image of him now is his drab olive T-shirt, videos of him standing on the streets of Kyiv with his cabinet as the city and the country are under fire, assuring his countrymen that he hasn’t fled, his addresses to the U.S. Congress and other world leaders imploring them to act. It’s certainly showing leadership, but it’s also calculated.
We want to buy into this narrative, it seems, because we want so desperately to be able to root for a clear good guy, and to hope for the side that is so clearly in the wrong to—just for once in our lives—lose. Servant of the People is here to give us the good guy, after Putin’s offensive, which seems to have stalled, has so eagerly given us the bad guy. What a spectator sport it’s been: Ukrainian forces are launching successful counteroffensives. Russian casualties are appalling, Russian generals are getting killed, and Russian tanks are being fragged by American-made missiles.
But Ukrainian deaths and displacement are worse. Ukrainian hospitals and schools are being bombed into oblivion. It could last years or decades, or it could end any minute now, when somebody pushes the same button in the Kremlin that my mother was waiting in terror for someone to press as she huddled in her home in Cuba in October of 1962. No sunny narrative heals these wounds.
Amidst the weight of all that, it’s foolish to project our individual hopes and fears upon Zelenskyy because we’ve seen clips of him dancing in a pink Elvis suit, or watched him be the mostly blameless good guy on a TV show. That is to fall for propaganda. It’s to accept a simplified narrative, to allow oneself to be taken in by the desire to humanize one side so that you might demonize the other and thus feel totally fine about war, which is always evil. Servant of the People now exists at the vertex of all those tensions, a purpose for which the show decidedly was not created.
Ultimately, none of this is Zelenskyy’s or the show’s fault: It is Putin’s. Just as it is Putin’s fault that thousands of lives have been lost, that millions of lives have been changed forever, that Zelenskyy will now go down in history as a fearless wartime president, and that a silly little sitcom like Servant of the People is now a historical artifact.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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