One of Vladimir Putin’s many recent contributions to international cultural exchange is that his invasion of Ukraine has brought renewed attention to Servant of the People, the one-camera TV sitcom created by, produced by, and starring the current president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Originally aired in 2015-19 and now available on Netflix in the U.S., with the complete run of 51 episodes also accessible for free (but not fully subtitled) on YouTube, Servant of the People tells the charming story of Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko (Zelensky), who when we first meet him is a high-school history teacher in Kiev.
Servant of the Peopleis as slick and professional as anything out of Hollywood, with top-notch acting, writing, and directing. Its entire feel and look, and its dry humor, bring to mind some of the best sitcoms of recent years.
Vasily is a humble little guy who lives at home. He can’t get into the bathroom in the morning without fighting off his father, mother, and sister. But he’s devoted to his students, and he has strong views about bad government.
When one of his students captures him on camera ranting about government corruption and posts the video online, it goes viral — and Vasily lands in hot water with his school’s humorless administrators. But then his students raise enough money through crowdfunding to enter his name as a candidate for president of the Ukraine — and, to everyone’s astonishment, he wins.
Suddenly his family, his colleagues, and the entire Ukrainian political class are fawning over him. (Only his students still treat him the same way they did before.) It takes him a few beats to catch up with his new reality. But then he gets down to business.
First, striving to be a responsible steward, Vasily dismisses his bodyguards and turns down the limo to which he’s entitled, opting instead to take the bus to work. Second, recognizing that the national budget is out of control and the government top-heavy with overpaid paper-pushers, he does some serious payroll cutting. He fires sticky-fingered cabinet ministers and replaces them with trusted friends.
And then, on his new team’s first day in office, all hell breaks loose. Vasily’s new finance minister discovers that the owners of a major bank have fled the country and taken its assets with them. His new minister of defense finds out that there are no fewer than 350 generals on the staff at Ukraine’s army headquarters — several times more than at the Pentagon. And the new foreign minister, informed of a coup in Uganda, has to be told by Vasily what, and where, Uganda is — whereupon he holds a press conference at which he inadvertently uses exceedingly inappropriate language to refer to Africans.
Unsurprisingly, the media have a field day at all the amateurishness.
Meanwhile Vasily’s father, indifferent to his son’s cost-cutting regime, reacts to his new role as patriarch of Ukraine’s First Family in the time-honored manner of many an acquisitive member of an apparatchik clan before him: he goes on a spending spree, filling his modest house with massive, gold-framed paintings and other high-ticket items, while planning an ambitious worldwide drinking tour. (Picture Jerry’s dad, Morty, on Seinfeld, and you won’t be far off.)
Then there are the villains of the piece — the oligarchs. Having regrouped after Vasily’s electoral upset, they send a slithery representative around to the various cabinet ministers’ offices to offer them million-dollar bribes on behalf of a mysterious, anonymous “us.”
And this is where Vasily’s decision-making proves to have been solid. One after another, his ministers send the dapper fellow packing — showing that they may not bring seasoned expertise to their jobs, but at least they’re honest.
Or are they? Tune in to find out. Really, it’s worth a look — not just because of its intrinsic merits but also because it underscores just how dramatically life and culture have changed in the former Eastern Europe. During the last years of the Soviet empire, serving as movie reviewer for The American Spectator, I occasionally saw films from behind the Iron Curtain. Their production values were relatively primitive, and they were uniformly bleak — even (especially?) the comedies. They were like messages from another world — a world far, far away, where the home interiors were all shabby-looking, the people’s clothing tattered and threadbare, and the people themselves rather gray and grim.
No more. Servant of the People is as slick and professional as anything out of Hollywood, with top-notch acting, writing, and directing. Its entire feel and look, and its dry humor, bring to mind some of the best sitcoms of recent years, including Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock, Louie, and Lilyhammer. And its characters, viewed through Western eyes, don’t seem alien at all.
No, there’s nothing new about the premise of Servant of the People. The sudden ascent to power of some decent Everyman is an old trope. Think of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Or The Prisoner of Zenda (which became the 1993 Kevin Kline movie Dave). But Vasily’s story, as told by Zelensky and his collaborators, feels fresh and fun.
To be sure, there are a few odd moments. At his first meeting with government leaders, a tongue-tied Vasily is chided by the spirit of Che Guevara, who tells him that these self-dealing traitors should all “either be shot or hanged.” It’s strange to see Che cast as a voice of conscience, even a bloodthirsty one.
What’s even odder, however, is the sight of Zelensky, who’s now the real president of Ukraine — and whom we’ve seen in recent days addressing the national legislatures of Britain, Canada, and the U.S. — meeting with his defense minister and talking about Putin.
But the oddest thing of all about watching this series is seeing its characters stroll along the pretty, peaceful streets of Kyiv — those same streets that we can now observe on the TV news, bombed to hell by a dictator set on undoing the thirty years of social and cultural progress that made Servant of the People possible.