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Servant of the People: Season One

Part of a song:
Servant of the people! People's servant!
Servant of the people!
The whole country is watching!

The television series in which Volodymyr Zelenskyy (who, as you know, unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, is currently the real president of Ukraine) plays a history teacher, Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, who suddenly becomes president of Ukraine. Art inspires life.

Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko (Vasya) is a modest man, a history teacher, living with his parents and the daughter of his sister. He suddenly finds himself elected to the presidency. As he’s preparing to go to school, we can see he is not the most respected person in the world.

How could such a thing happen? Of course such a thing is highly improbable, but the setup is entertaining. At a moment when Vasya believed he was speaking only to another adult, he gave a profanity-filled rant about the problems in the Ukrainian government. Unknown to him, a student recorded the rant on his phone and uploaded it to the internet. It goes viral, and many people tell him they want him to run for office. Vasya points out he can’t possibly afford the filing fee, but his class organizes a crowdfunding and the fees are paid. He doesn’t do any politicking but nevertheless his profanity-laced truths get him elected.

Vasya’s election is entirely unexpected – he was not polling well – so he is completely unprepared to assume office. He is whisked away to get outfitted properly and to give a press conference. There’s the usual comedy from not knowing what he’s doing, having to meet hundreds of people, and discovering the ins and outs of fame and power.

The family also celebrates, and soon we see that they may not be as supportive of their prodigy's efforts as he would like. They take advantage of their situation to accept many gifts. Their corruption is very small scale, however, compared to what is going on in the government – and in many respects, understandable. Given Vasya’s new position, they’re all going to be on camera.

How do you change a culture that is so corrupt? This is the main theme of season one. Vasya ends up appointing friends to high positions, which is something a corrupt leader would also do (and which is criticized in at least one review). These people, as it’s pointed out, don’t have the expertise to run these vast departments.

However, when you do not know whom you can trust, when you don’t have a “deep state” with ethical professionals, appointing loyalists is the only way to go. The same approach has to be used by anyone making a change, whether for good or for ill. It turns out that character matters a lot.

There are also dramatic reasons for appointing friends (and Vasya’s ex-wife!) to key positions in the government. It conserves the number of actors in the series, and allows personal relationships with Vasya to come into play. We also get to see each of these newbies approach their challenging roles.

Of course, there’s a lot of pushback on the goals of the new regime. Many people profit from the corruption, as we see three oligarchs who are accustomed to getting their way. However, it’s also hard on the ordinary people, who have to adjust to how the world now works.

Several artistic decisions are worth noting. First, the oligarchs don’t appear completely on camera for many of the earlier episodes. We see their mouths. We see them from the back, as they’re getting massages. Only gradually do they come into view, a lovely joining of metaphor and reality.

Second, Vasya, before he becomes president, is a history teacher, and he has fantasies / dreams / hallucinations of conversations with historical figures. I absolutely love this, even though the Abraham Lincoln actor’s face was entirely the wrong shape. How often do fictional versions of Herodotus and Plutarch get to make appearances anywhere?

Third, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not a tall man, and he makes use of this by almost always being the shortest person in a scene (an exception is the personal motivator of the previous president). Women wear heels so that they are at least as tall as he is. Some children, of course, are shorter.

Fourth, there’s not exactly slapstick but they do have fun with some physical comedy, such as when Vasya is attempting to hide from a foreign official. Volodomyr Zelenskyy is nimble.

I sought out this program because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s one of those real-life situations where I cannot bear to watch every detail, and yet I still feel drawn to support Ukraine, and to learn more about its brave people and their leader. That's why I began watching this program. I stayed with the series, at least for season one, because it is so entertaining.

Bits and pieces

I owe a lot to a friend of mine for helping me with this review. P is one of those people who learns a new language before breakfast, and she’s fluent in Russian and can understand most Ukrainian. (She’s also been recommending a Turkish show but I have resisted.)

Evidently the dialogue is mostly in Russian, at least in season one. P reports that only occasionally, such as when there’s a newscast going on, does the dialogue take place in Ukrainian. However, there’s much more Ukrainian spoken in seasons two and three.

And apparently, too, there’s a lot going on that I am not catching because I don’t know Russian. Such as a bit of dialogue that P told me is part of a Russian proverb.

If you want to watch it, and you don’t know Russian or Ukrainian, make sure you find a source with good subtitles. Youtube was offering me two different versions, but in one the subtitles were much, much better. P, by the way, confirms that the translations are pretty good. If you’re in the US, Netflix is currently streaming it.

I was not pleased by the show's treatment of older women. Vasya chose an older woman to be in charge of the SBU, but she lost her position almost immediately. I like the new guy, but I’d love more of us older broads.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in 2006, won Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars, so he’s naturally light on his feet. He can totally do those leaps in the air where he clicks his heels together.

Even though this show is fiction, it essentially served as a campaign ad for Zelenskyy, who was elected Ukraine’s president in 2019 with a whopping 73.23% of the vote! – after having formed a party called “Servant of the People.”

This, of course, is fiction. Wiping out corruption in real life is much harder.

No quotes because, hey, I don’t know Russian and I can’t do it justice.

Overall rating

I enjoyed Servant of the People immensely. I may not be able to continue because I understand that the subtitles may be of lesser quality – or entirely absent – in part of season two. I’m hoping some kind person out there inserts them and uploads the episodes to Youtube and I will certainly keep searching. Anyway, it’s the most fun I’ve had watching a show in a while. Three and a half Ukrainian sunflowers.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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