Television

The Eerie Experience of Watching Zelensky’s Sitcom Now

Zelensky in character leg-kicking at a presidential podium.
Servant of the People. Netflix.

If history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce, what happens when the order is reversed? What if (for example) a television comedy predicts a real-life tragedy you are presently watching unfold—detailed to a level that includes the main protagonist? That’s what it feels like to watch Servant of the People right now: The first season of Volodymyr Zelensky’s sitcom about an ordinary guy who becomes president is on Netflix, and watching it on one screen while on another Zelensky narrates his country’s resistance to the Russian invasion feels like witnessing history stereoscopically.

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Because until recently I have only ever experienced Volodymyr Zelensky as the embattled president of Ukraine—first during the infamous telephone call that led to Donald Trump’s (first) impeachment, and then as the almost mythic leader he has since become: defiant, stripped-down, brave, and demanding—it is eerie in the extreme to watch his turn as the affable and frequently embarrassed president of a Ukraine that has not been invaded but longs for admission into NATO. The comedy, a brighter satire than Veep or The Thick of It, portrays Ukraine as a lovely place that barely exists as a legitimate state, so riddled is it with corruption, invented principles, cronyism, and spontaneous legislation. The character Zelensky plays, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, is a schoolteacher who lives with his parents, rejects grandeur, and rides his bicycle (or the bus) to work. He becomes an overnight YouTube sensation when a student secretly films him ranting to a colleague about corruption. “Who is there to vote for? It’s always the lesser of two assholes and it’s been this way for twenty-five years,” goes his speech, now as famous in our world as it was in Holoborodko’s. “If I could have just one week in office, if at all possible, I would show them! Fuck the motorcades! Fuck the perks! Fuck the weekend chalets!”

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The series’ engine is Holoborodko’s close but vexed relationship with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Ivanovich Chuiko (Stanislav Boklan), a smooth, Alec Baldwin-like principle of polish who gently and cheerfully advises him, helps him pass legislation, and instructs him in the ways of power. Chuiko is compromised, of course: He’s an ally of the shadowy oligarchs whom we initially only see in fragments, usually as mouths and hands and backs playing Monopoly and eating fruit in sumptuous surroundings. He’s working against Holoborodko, whom none of the oligarchs wanted elected, and their long slow chess match over the course of the first season is easily the series’ most pleasurable part.

While the series’ villains—a trio of evil oligarchs—are clear, the hero is hardly infallible. Sure, Holoborodko is a better man than most; he can resist bribes and this is enough to make him exceptional. But he is not, beyond opposing the oligarchs and corruption in a general way, a creature with well-worked out principles. Being a historian, he “communes” with a range of historical figures ranging from Herodotus to Louis XVI. He also compromises often and regularly makes enormous and surprising mistakes. One of the first mistakes he makes, in fact—which goes uncorrected and uncriticized by the series—involves firing a network of connected vipers in the administration only to appoint his own set of cronies as advisers (they include several of his spectacularly unqualified pals and his ex-wife). The comedy, which goes to the trouble of roundly condemning nepotism, faintly suggests that Holoborodko’s judgment here is good enough; his cronyism is somehow the benign kind. It’s hard not to watch this fictional turn of events without recalling that the real Zelensky, once elected president, brought some three dozen of his associates from the entertainment industry into government—installing them in departments that include national security and defense. As the chief editor of the Kyiv Independent put it in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Zelensky “came to largely rely on the loyal rather than the qualified. … The circle around the president has become an echo chamber.” Coincidence, or manifestation?

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The search for these sorts of post-hoc parallels is both inappropriate and inevitable. It’s a part of the Zelensky legend now that Servant of the People was incredibly popular, so much so that Zelensky liked to share (in interviews before he became president) that when people stopped him for photos, they were quite clear that they wished to be snapped not with him but with his character. The idea of a Holoborodko-like figure was enormously appealing: People loved the portrayal of an honest man who rejected grandeur, resisted corruption, and managed to creatively outwit the oligarchs who have kept the country in a chokehold while enriching themselves. The timing is important here: Zelensky (who created and produced the show) leveraged that popularity into political power while the show was still on the air. Servant of the People ran from 2015–2019, but it was in 2018 that his production company created a political party also named Servant of the People, whose banner Zelensky would run under when he announced his candidacy on Dec. 31, 2018. It’s typical of how reality has exceeded the show’s unlikely premise that whereas the fictional Holoborodko won the popular vote by a massive, unexpected margin with 67 percent of the vote, Zelensky himself would win with 73 percent of the second-round vote.

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Most interestingly of all, perhaps, is that in the show, Holoborodko—a person not given much to thinking about his appearance, who starts the series off begging his mother to iron his shirt—must figure out how to aggressively manage his image. I have written elsewhere about how the heroically bedraggled and t-shirted image Zelensky has generated for international audiences, while not being false, is intelligently engineered. It’s somewhat shocking, I confess, to watch his fictional alter ego undergo a similar exercise in image-making. Servant of the People dedicates its first couple of episodes to showing how the machinery of the state works to change a man into a president. “Where are we going?” Holoborodko asks Chuiko, who has picked him up and informed him he won the election. “We have a full day,” Chuiko replies. “There’s a clothes fitting, personal image work, a photo shoot, a meeting with journalists and a press conference.” Holoborodko is suddenly choosing designer suits and shoes, getting his hair cut, and picking a watch. Not to worry—his speech is pre-written! It’s dizzying, and Holoborodko is too startled at first to resist. The luxury is tempting, and everywhere.

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There’s even a Putin reference! When Chuiko offers Holoborodko his choice of designer watches, he points out the one Vladimir Putin allegedly wears—a Swiss-made Hublot. “Putin Hublot?” Zelensky asks. “Yes,” Chuiko confirms.

It’s a frivolous little moment that resonates differently now as the show’s themes and our lived reality continue to collide. Less visible to Americans is that the exchange about watches is a joke at Putin’s expense: “Putin Huylo” was a popular Ukrainian anti-Putin chant. (Huylo means, roughly, fucker or dickhead.) This mild but subversive joke was enough for a Russian broadcaster to censor that scene when it started airing Servant of the People in 2019. The omission was widely mocked and the series was subsequently pulled—it was on the Russian broadcaster TNT’s air for exactly one day. This, they said, had always been the plan. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denied that Putin saw it or interfered: “He does not watch TV shows.”

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But this little footnote to a TV show was also happening only a few days after Putin and a recently elected President Zelensky had met in Paris for the first time in December 2019. That meeting was crucial: One of the campaign promises that got Zelensky elected had been to bring the conflict with Russia to a diplomatic end, and the hope for that meeting was to negotiate a ceasefire and the exchange of political prisoners, among other things. (Putin arrived in a limousine while Zelensky arrived in “a modest gray Renault minivan.”)

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Zelensky was reportedly extremely diplomatic during this meeting, refraining from insulting Putin as his predecessor had. He obviously had much more to lose than Putin, including popular support at home if he was seen to be too conciliatory to Russia. And he was acting without the United States’ support; Trump, who had taken a more pro-Putin line, was in the middle of his own impeachment hearings relating to his call with Zelensky. (Trump’s comment when they met in September was “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem.”)

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Progress was theoretically made during those talks, but more interesting for our purposes here is the evolution of Zelensky as a negotiator and an international figure—from conciliatory underdog (remember his flattery of Trump on their call) to defiant patriot. Remarkably, it’s not so far afield from Holoborodko’s arc, where he starts off as a bit of an amiable doofus—much too receptive to everything his prime minister suggests—until he starts to take control of his own image. By the third episode he fires most of his security detail, masseuses, and psychotherapists, abandons the presidential palace, and rides the bus in a simple gray suit. This symbolic rebellion enables him to get more confrontational over time: If in early episodes Holoborodko daydreams about savaging the corrupt officials in his administration to their faces but fails to do so, by the end of the first season he’s openly confronted pretty much everyone: politicians, protesters, even his own family—who have kicked him out because his reforms have raised their cost of living. The path to progress is not smooth.

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Zelensky’s earlier presidential image was likewise more baffled than badass. He sustained a diffident posture about his Trump call out of necessity, the way you have to when you depend on someone: “Our calls were not linked to Burisma or military aid,” Zelensky said in the wake of the phone call scandal, adding that he had no wish to interfere in U.S. elections. His approach was pragmatically deferential, inoffensive, even bland. Meanwhile, at home, the novelty of his image wore off. His anti-corruption efforts were largely seen as gestural rather than substantive and his administration was producing scandals too: In a scene that could (once again) have been taken from the show, his chief of staff’s brother was found to have been selling high-level positions. Prior to the Russian invasion, a poll found that 62 percnt of Ukrainians did not want him to run for re-election.

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Since Russia’s invasion, Zelensky’s image has transformed almost as much as his attitude: His tone toward the NATO powers he needs, for instance, is strategic but not conciliatory. He is making layered demands (if a no-fly zone won’t happen, how about more anti-aircraft weaponry). He’s put allies on notice, telling them they’re not doing enough. He is suspending opposition political parties. He is even using martial law to order Ukrainian TV networks to consolidate their messaging.

It’s both difficult and not to imagine Holoborodko doing these things. Holoborodko is perfectly willing to resort to shenanigans—up to and including elaborately faking an administration official’s death with an explosion—if it will help him defeat the oligarchs. He believes in stagecraft and lies when he needs to. In fact, he has a trick he resorts to when he can’t get people to stop screaming around him: “Putin has been overthrown!” he shouts. It works every time.

Who knows how far the series’ prophetic powers will go?

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