When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was campaigning for his eventual victory in 2019, he told voters there was a very easy way to see how he would govern.
“Watch my show,” he would say.
That television show, “Servant of the People,” ran for two seasons and a few extra episodes, with a third season thwarted by the election. The sitcom, about an average Ukrainian who ascends to the most powerful place in government, can be streamed on Netflix as we speak.
It's a fascinating piece of pop culture that helps explain Zelenskyy’s appeal as well as his media savviness in the face of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian force.
Prior to becoming a world leader forged by bloodshed and bomb casings, Zelenskyy was a comedian and television producer. “Servant of the People” premiered in 2015 and depicted high school teacher Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko (Zelenskyy) who rises to notoriety when a student captures his political rant with his phone.
The clip goes viral, the teacher becomes president, and the oligarchs who run politics in the country decide this happy accident will play itself out when this average bozo gets a taste of power and prestige.
Spoiler: That is not how this works out. Goloborodko sees himself as an Eastern European Obama, a leader who seeks to shun the shadows of the former Soviet empire. When an advisor suggests fashion that resembles Putin, Zelenskyy mugs with dissatisfaction. Despite all the money and perks showered upon him and his ridiculous family, Goloborodko decides to make cleaning up government his crusade, much to the dismay of his handlers.
I’ve heard Zelenskyy and his show compared to Jon Stewart. That’s not quite right. The show is not a parody; there are pretty traditional sitcom beats. Dad is overbearing! Woman love to shop! The mousy secretary becomes more confident when she takes off her glasses! I mean, these are pretty ancient chestnuts.
The star of the show isn’t very animated like many modern comedians. He is more like the stone-faced Buster Keaton than anything else.
Plus, there are no great monologues that were a staple of Stewart’s "Daily Show." Goloborodko resists temptation, steels his resolve, and butts heads with the most powerful people in the room. Which, while I was watching, made me wonder how Zelenskyy was able to get away with mocking the oligarchs in such a corrupt country on state-run television.
Turns out one of the financial forces of the show, and a big fan of Zelenskyy’s, was a bit of an oligarch himself.
But Zelenskyy took the anti-corruption message of the show and created a “Servant of the People” political party that swept him into power. Ironic that Donald Trump, who should understand the appeal of a fellow media personality, saw fit to attempt a bribe for this very anti-bribery politician.
Being against something will only get a politician so far. Zelenskyy’s poll numbers started to dip significantly almost from the start. Putin, eyeing Ukraine as an expansion for his vision of an all-powerful Russia, must have seen what he thought was an easy mark. Someone with no political experience and waning public support.
The novice proved he knew how to tell his story and reach an audience. Even as tanks moved in and assassination attempts were lodged, Zelenskyy stayed in front of a camera and delivered clear, concise statements that played well on social media. Here’s a guy who understands the power of modern media and how to wield it.
When Zelenskyy gets up and says he will join the European Union if someone would just send him the paperwork, it sounds like it could be a joke. Until you realize that the EU president hopped on a plane with that paperwork and presented it that very night.
What the audience gets with “Servant of the People” is certainly not a stinging bit of political satire, but a character study. The show displays the evolution of a guy who goes from being an entertainer to a wartime leader. Someone who knows the right turn of phrase to capture the imagination of a population.
Zelenskyy, if anything, is someone who understands the bully pulpit has moved to YouTube and plans to stand atop every social media platform he can find to save his country.
“Servant of the People” might not be great television, but it is great in helping understand the modern Ukrainian culture and the man who serves as a beacon of light in a hill surrounded by darkness. That, in itself, makes the show a bit of a miracle.
With that, I'll end with a cheap plug. I am resurrecting, as a podcast, an old website where I used to write reviews. Filmsnobs is what we called it somewhat ironically.
I’ve posted the first episode on Apple and Spotify, where my fellow Filmsnob Steve Himes and I talk with Missouri S&T professor — and Eastern European expert — Andrew Behrendt about Ukrainian political history and what this show says about Zelenskyy and the current conflict. It’s really interesting. Search and subscribe if you get a chance.
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of energy policy group Renew Missouri. He created/wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001-2007 before an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield. He was named a Top 20 Artist under the Age of 30 by The Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: How Zelenskyy’s appeal shines through previous role as a sitcom star