Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” Should be Required Viewing…
…FOR THOSE WHO LOVE THIS PRECIOUS THING CALLED DEMOCRACY. Netflix recently began running Vlodymyr Zelensky’s Ukrainian TV Series “Servant of the People”, which is a fascinating look at an incredible “life imitates art” story. The Russian-Ukrainian war has put Zelensky (once simply a TV sitcom actor) in a position to be the next Thomas Jefferson/Abe Lincoln, and we Americans should all take note
I started watching Vlodymyr Zelensky’s “Servant of the People” on Netflix with some skepticism. “How funny could a Ukrainian TV series be?” I wondered. I was also half expecting him to be like the old Russian stand up comedian Yakov Smirnoff, with a bunch of one-liners about Russian stereotypes. How wrong I was…the show not only plays very well in the US based upon its comedy alone, but it shows the Ukraine as being remarkably like the US, regular people trying to get by in the face of corruption and disinformation.
The setup is that Zelensky is a divorced and dissatisfied history teacher, living with his parents, who one day is unwittingly caught on a student’s iphone ranting about what he’d do if he were somehow the leader of the Ukraine. His students (who admire his tough love) post the rant, then do a kind of Ukrainian “gofundme”, which miraculously elects him President as a write-in (without his knowledge). Next, he fights against attempts by oligarchs to make him a puppet ruler, trying to wipe out corruption and restore opportunity, despite his naivete. In the show, he has a law degree, and his character is somewhat nebbish. He often succeeds in spite of himself, rather like an old Woody Allen or Charlie Chaplin film. Often, he has daydreams where he is advised by the likes of great politicians of History, such as Abraham Lincoln, Socrates, Che Guevara, or Caesar. The show typically reflects a familiar kind of Western cynicism in the face of often silly bureaucracy.
Of course what makes this sitcom especially compelling was that subsequently, Zelensky REALLY WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT OF UKRAINE, ostensibly on the popularity of his TV show, and now he is more or less living the reality of the character he created. The nearest US equivalent might be if in the 70s, Vinny (John Travolta) filmed Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) ranting about the corruption of Richard Nixon, and subsequently became a write-in President, only to find himself conducting the Vietnam War (certainly an ironic set up!)
What is really compelling about all this is several things:
1) First, the show is well done and funny, especially given the endearing characterizations (made more endearing knowing that their lives are now threatened by the Russian invasion).
2) Since the characters speak Russian (most Ukrainians speak Russian as the “business language”, Ukrainian as the less formal language), you wonder why Russian television didn’t pick up the show, allowing the Russian people to learn at a minimum about anti-corruption (actually a censored version of the show did run for one season in Russia, then seasons 2 and 3 were subsequently banned). Occasionally, there are satirical swipes at Putin or Russia, which I’m sure Russia didn’t appreciate.
3) One begins to believe in Zelensky, first as a character and then as an actor and a person, the way we believe in Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks (Oops! Will Smith just fell off this list!). A background check reveals that Zelensky was the head of an acting troupe, that had to carefully hone its brand of political humor, in a Nation that didn’t always appreciate or allow humor. Subsequently, he really does seem like the perfect man for the job, in the way the Stewart became in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or Robert Redford revealed in “The Candidate”.
4) Of course now Zelensky is in the fight of his life, being hunted by Russian assassins, appealing to NATO and the UN for help, since he is fighting on the frontiers of Democracy.
5) The show’s constant appeal for freedom, integrity, Democracy, and transparency by an everyman must’ve really struck a nerve with Putin, who chose to smear the Ukrainians with the “Nazi” label (which of course fits Putin’s Russia 100x more than Zelensky’s Ukraine). After all, Putin couldn’t have his iron bootheels reduced to a laughing stock (he’s also probably watched “The Producers”, and knows the danger of a potential “Springtime for Hitler” musical about his corrupt regime)
6) The show and Zelensky’s position and appeal harken back to our own Founding Fathers, and Americans REALLY REALLY NEED TO TAKE NOTE! Since Zelensky is basically more “American” than most “Americans”, us either a) Duped by Trump’s Putin-like disinformation campaign or b) Way too entitled and soft, complaining when we have it so much better than most in the world.
I’m kind of wondering if all Americans should watch “Servant of the People”, to remind us of our own original struggles for Democracy, and as a wake-up call to those underplaying the threat of totalitarian regimes, such as Russia and China. If Zelensky is assassinated by Russian agents (God forbid), you will see a worldwide martyrdom up there with JFK’s, and certainly a rallying cry to overthrow Putin.
Finally, though “Servant of the People” is ostensibly a NATO-friendly point of view aimed at Russian (or Chinese) squelching of Democracy, we can also see in it a critique of our own Western governments, with their bloated spending, news outlets-turned-propaganda-ists, and shameful NATO/UN-like inactions. Its as though Zelensky aimed his show at all corrupt governments, yet Russia chose only to see themselves in the funny-bone crosshairs (typical of a paranoid totalitarian government). As if Zelensky hasn’t taken on too much already, he’s quickly becoming a one-man referendum for Democracy vis a vis Western materialism/inaction and Eastern propaganda/rights squelching/human rights cruelty.
God help him!