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Why watching Zelenskyy's political satire on Netflix is a surreal experience

As real people continue to die in Ukraine, watching Zelenskyy pretend to play this particular role feels deeply uncomfortable.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy in \"Servant of the People\" on Netflix.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy in "Servant of the People" on Netflix.Netflix

Last Wednesday, 9 a.m. local time on the East Coast, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine since 2019, spoke before a joint session of Congress. In doing so, he joined the ranks of an elite group of foreign leaders given that honor. But just a few minutes before Zelenskyy begged for more military aid for his country, and a no-fly zone, a press release went out from Netflix, announcing that “Servant of the People,” the popular Ukrainian sitcom that starred Zelenskyy, was once again available for streaming.

Zelenskyy, who holds a law degree, has catapulted to the global center stage. But outside the U.S., he has spent years in a very different spotlight.

The surrealism of the moment cannot be understated. Zelenskyy, who holds a law degree, has catapulted to the global center stage. But outside the U.S., he has spent years in a very different spotlight. Zelenskyy was a longtime member of a comedy group that won countrywide competitions, before creating his own troupe that toured throughout Russia and other Eastern European countries. That troupe eventually turned into a television production company, Kvartal 95. Zelenskyy’s career has since included several feature films (he is the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear, among other credits), and Kvartal 95 produced a raft of shows for Ukrainian TV, including “Servant of the People.”

The series originally premiered in 2015. Though this was post-Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which inspired a wave of Ukrainian national feeling, it was pre-Brexit, pre-Trump and pre-Covid. The idea of a good-hearted history teacher, Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko (played by Zelenskyy) suddenly going viral on the internet and accidentally sweeping a national election felt wholesome. Populism had yet to become associated with the dark side of nationalism, and the idea of accidentally toppling power structures was considered cheerful political satire. The popular show ran for four years before ending in 2019 to allow Zelenskyy to run for the presidency in real life.

Being from the beforetimes, there’s almost a fairytale quality to the series, which opens with corrupt oligarchs (bathed in evil blue lighting) complaining about how hard they’ve worked to install their chosen puppet candidates. Next, we see Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a poor, hectored history teacher living in a crowded apartment with his elderly parents learning he has been elected president of Ukraine. (Showrunners put repurposed footage of President Barack Obama to good cameo effect here.) How did this happen? Due to a viral pro-democracy YouTube rant, of course.

This is not “House of Cards” or “Veep,” or even the U.K. classic “In The Thick Of It,” though the amount of swearing in the first episode certainly feels comparable. Instead, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as envisioned by the Marx Brothers, or perhaps Mel Brooks in his 1970s prime.

Americans may be accustomed to far more cynicism — or at the very least, buffoonery — from political prestige dramas. Even so, fans stateside may at first find value in this absurdist governmental portrait. Parts of it are quite funny. There’s a “self-esteem raiser,” for example, whose job is to follow Holoborodko around telling him how great he is. (There’s also a suntan architect. We’ll leave that one alone.) And there are plenty of jabs at Vladimir Putin, including a startling line about the uses of having a body double.

But moments like that also make the show feel less fun, very quickly.

President Richard Nixon may have been defeated by television, and Donald Trump’s rise to the highest office was likely aided by the fiction peddled by “The Apprentice.” Ronald Reagan, too, traded on his improv skills and known Hollywood face to reach the presidency. Zelenskyy’s situation is a little more like if Stephen Colbert had been serious about his run for office in 2008 (instead the late-night impresario ran for “president of South Carolina,” his home state). But it still all feels a little too weirdly foreboding. Are we supposed to be laughing?

Trade out “viral YouTube video” for “hit sitcom,” and Zelesnkyy’s fictional and real backstories overlap in landslide victory. Watching the Ukrainian leader address Congress, I couldn’t help but feel like he was cribbing a bit from past scripts. But if Zelenskyy wasn’t aware of the differences between being the fake presidency and the real one, he does now. Maybe his background is why Trump assumed the Ukrainian leader could easily be pressured into helping him fix an election. (Although the White House’s bumbling incompetence would have fit right into “Servant of the People” season five.)

So, on the one hand, watching “Servant of the People” may provide some context to Western audiences. It’s no coincidence that Zelenskyy’s viral wartime Instagram videos feel grittily cinematic. But there’s also something bizarre, and tone-deaf, underpinning Netflix’s proud reacquisition of the show.

Hollywood has always liked to pretend that the world magically becomes a better place when an everyman takes on a government leadership role; that common sense is all you need to bring about world peace. Two years ago, “Servant of the People” had a real-life, feel-good ending. But as real people continue to die in Ukraine, watching Zelenskyy pretend to play this particular role right now is deeply uncomfortable.