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Monday, May 23, 2022

Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People: the TV show that made Ukraine’s president | Television

Britain is internationally notorious for the frosty reception it usually gives to subtitled foreign television. Although things have changed a little thanks to Netflix, we are historically a country that gives short shrift to anything we have to read as well as watch. At any other point in history, nobody would care that Channel 4 had just bought a subtitled seven-year-old political comedy.

But the subtitled seven-year-old political comedy Channel 4 has bought happens to be Servant of the People, the show that launched the political career of the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. As such, it is suddenly appointment viewing.

This is because, for one thing, Servant of the People is now an important historical document. When people talk about Zelenskiy in the future – and they will, deservedly, in the highest terms – they will struggle to draw a line between the unfathomably brave political figure who inspired global hope in the face of unthinkable destruction and the Paddington-voicing Dancing with the Stars contestant he once was. Servant of the People is that line.

It’s a show about an unlikely figure (a put-upon school teacher) who, against all odds, becomes the Ukrainian president after an establishment-upsetting populist election victory. He’s thrown in at the deep end, but gradually wins over his staff, the media and the general population with his face-value honesty. In real life, the series was a runaway hit. Then, three years into the show, Zelenskiy formed a new real-life political party called Servant of the People, ran for president and won. The rest is history.

‘An early demonstration of charisma by a figure who has arguably become the world’s most admired man’ … Zelenskiy in Servant of the People.
‘An early demonstration of charisma by a figure who has arguably become the world’s most admired man’ … Zelenskiy in Servant of the People. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

As such, Servant of the People exists as a kind of prediction of Zelenskiy’s origin story. It is extraordinary, and there aren’t many western equivalents. You could point at Boris Johnson’s appearances on Have I Got News For You, except that he was already a serving MP at the time. Maybe Meghan, Duchess of Sussex’s former career on Suits, except that marrying a prince isn’t the same as leading an entire country through a foreign invasion. Perhaps Donald Trump’s stint on The Apprentice comes closest, except that his TV persona was quickly revealed to be a sham once he gained power. Zelenskiy, meanwhile, has exceeded all expectations.

That is one reason why you will want to watch Servant of the People. The second, happier reason to watch is that it’s actually good. It’s a smart, engaging, well-acted satire with a light touch and a clear point of view. In the pilot, we watch the rise of Zelenskiy’s character in flashback. A schlubby teacher unleashes a sweary rant about the state of Ukrainian politics at a colleague while, unbeknown to him, a student secretly records it and puts it on YouTube. Millions watch, and a crowdfunder is launched to pay for the election costs. Then, after a shadowy cabal of string-pullers decide to forgo their usual election tactics in favour of “uncontrolled democracy”, he wins.

I have only seen the first handful of episodes – despite the full show having run for three years – so I don’t know if Servant of the People gains teeth as time goes on, but it’s best viewed as a human story about how sudden fame changes people.

“A smart, engaging, well-acted satire” … Zelenskiy’s runaway hit is worth watching for more than just its political significance.
‘A smart, engaging, well-acted satire’ … Zelenskiy’s runaway hit is worth watching for more than just its political significance. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Old colleagues who harboured semi-justified resentments towards Zelenskiy’s character suddenly fawn over him now that he’s in power. His family start to see the title rather than the man. He is properly listened to for the first time in his life, and quickly has to discover where his limits lie. This is all sold through Zelenskiy’s performance. He is uncertain and vulnerable – and endlessly charming.

If you only know the man through the morale-boosting videos he has been posting since the invasion began, it will be hard to recognise; the fictional wobbliness has been replaced by unshakeable determination. But, as an early demonstration of charisma by a figure who has arguably become the world’s most admired man, Servant of the People is much more important than it ever set out to be.

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