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Servant of the People: Season Three

Vasily Petrovich Goloborodko (Vasya): “At least we tried.”

The third season, which our hero spends mostly in prison and then suddenly becomes president.

This season is short, consisting of a total of three episodes, each almost twice as long as an episode in the first season. This adds up to about six regular episodes, so it's about 25% the watching time of an ordinary season. But many countries have only a few episodes in a season.

Season three is also different because it shifts from entertainment and satire into what is clearly campaigning. At some point during the third season – and I am sorry that I cannot pin down dates – Volodymyr Zelenskyy and some of the people at the production company formed a new party, called "Servant of the People" in honor of this show, Servant of the People. I expect a run for office was being considered all along – Zelenskyy is a lawyer as well as an entertainer – but then at some point, the decision became acute.

Season three starts with Vasya in prison, having been tossed there after losing to his opponent, Dmitry Surikov (if Vasya did lose, which wasn’t completely clear, given the informal exit poll they conducted). Locking up the opposition is common in many countries; I can see how it would always be tempting, especially as they are often so corrupt. In this case, however, the new president, Dmitry Vasilyevich Surikov, has a difficult time finding stuff to charge Vasya with – as Vasya is that rare thing – an honest man. With hindsight we can see that Surikov was always a snake, not just in how he schemed to seduce Vasya’s ex-wife. His pledge to throw his votes to Vasya was always a lie.

Vasya is not safe in prison. He is threatened, then the ex-prime minister Chuiko (who is back in prison as well) breaks Vasya’s nose. This seems harsh, and it certainly has a wonderful surprise factor (Chuiko? Violent?!?) but it’s actually a minor injury designed to get Vasya into the hospital, where he is relatively safe. However, Vasya’s friends have not forgotten him. Serhey and the others go to the Europeans and get them to look into Vasya’s prison conditions. As Ukrainians want to remain in good standing with Europe, they put Vasya into what looks like a hotel, which is somehow connected to the prison, as we saw when Vasya initially visited Surikov. Vasya, because he’s Vasya, negotiates so that all the prisoners get moved to hotel-like conditions. This negotiation makes him popular with all the prisoners, which makes him safe for the rest of his imprisonment.

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine is not doing well under Surikov; when Papa comes to visit his son at a holiday, Vasya gives him a goodie bag, instead of the other way around.

At the end of the second episode, things suddenly change. The first two episodes did not show the situation in Ukraine in any detail; we only knew things were bad. Evidently they are so bad that Europe, or possibly the G7, or the UN; I didn't quite follow, sorry – and who gives them the authority? – decides to interfere. Vasily Petrovych Golobodorko was the last legitimately elected president – which makes me think Surikov cheated, most likely anyway – and they ask him to resume the office, as long as he has some guidance.

In an homage to a scene in the show's very first episode, Chuiko goes to Vasya’s cell (somehow the bad one again) and says, “Congratulations, Mr. President!” But Ukraine is very different than what it was before our hero went to prison. It has broken apart into something like 28 different states.

This is where the second episode ends. The third episode is mostly a campaign-fomercial, with a few entertaining bits mixed in. We even have the frame story of a history teacher in the future teaching a bunch of kids about some recent history – which allows the episode to pick and choose the relevant events that make Ukraine great. They're not restricted by the conventional timeline of a normal sitcom.

Chuiko, our ex-prime minister, is being employed to advise him. Although Chuiko is good with some of the protocol and interpreting the motivations of the people Vasya needs to meet, the ex-prime minister was raised in a corrupt system and his advice often reflects that. Vasya realizes this, and he gets his old team back together.

There are many problems, but a big one is, of course, how to find money for things? The guy in charge of justice and the guy in charge of fiscal service deal with that. They have an offer to those have grifted: pay what you stole and stay out of prison. The IRS sometimes has similar offers of amnesty. However, I think it fair to point out that many of the Ukrainian oligarchs would simply leave the country and go to visit their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Another big problem is, how do you reunite a country? This is an issue plaguing much of the world, especially the US, where the divisions are deep and seem impossible to bridge. In the Servant of the People case, it’s done by running things so well – or at least, so much better – than the other nearby regions. They, or at least their people, pretty much beg to rejoin. And if this seems far-fetched, remember how hard Ukraine has been working to become part of Europe. It’s not that Europe is perfect – it’s not – but it’s a heck of a lot better than the country to the east trying to reinstall serfdom.

Not all the hurdles come from the typical bad guys. At the end Ukraine gets a lecture from the great powers for having the temerity to schedule a satellite launch. “Leave that to us,” say the great powers, who clearly want to keep their superior position. And they point out, rather reasonably, that Ukraine should not be going into space until it has paid back the loans. Vasily Petrovych makes an appeal to the nation, and the citizens join together to pay back the $163 billion in a week. This is also somewhat unrealistic, but a move in the right direction.

The third episode may be unrealistic and aspirational, but it shows the direction in which Zelenskyy wants to lead Ukraine. And sometimes, if you head in a particular direction, you actually get where you’re trying to go.

Bits and pieces

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

Also, the usual sources for character and actor names – IMDb and Wikipedia – were woefully inadequate for this series. So in some cases I did not even try.

Isn't it nice, with streaming, that the lengths of episodes can fit the story instead of it being dictated by schedules and commercial breaks?

In a way, breaking apart the country means our newly reinstalled president has a much more manageable task. It’s easier to clean up small than something large.

In Season two, during the campaigning arc of the season, there was a lot of antisemitism thrown around by some of the candidates, with some accusing others of having Jewish ancestry. I have heard friends and family discuss the antisemitism of Ukraine as a serious issue. Nevertheless, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, won the presidency with more than 70% of the vote, at least in the second round.

As I said, locking up political opponents is common in many countries. In fact, Ukraine’s Yanukovych locked up his opponent, Yulia Volodymyrivna Tymoshenko, who was only released after the Maidan Uprising (Revolution of Dignity).

The luxurious conditions connected to the crappy conditions in the prison makes me wonder if this is a thing. I’ve heard that some prisons are much better than others, but I don’t know if some have luxury apartments, although I guess there are trailers for conjugal visits. Anyone out there who can weigh in?

Languages have been used to divide people. Now, language is a funny thing. Our brains are hard-wired to learn sounds and grammar when we’re little, and most of us lose that ability when we get older. Many people feel threatened when others speak foreign languages (the Greeks had a word for them, barbarians, with the idea the unfamiliar languages sounded like bar – bar – bar). In the third episode, this problem is done away with via a new device, a sort of universal translator. However, that language thing is a big deal in Ukraine right now. There’s a sizable Hungarian speaking minority, because some years back a treaty carved up Hungary and gave part of their territory to Ukraine. The Hungarians have not been pleased over the fact that their descendants might lose the Hungarian language.

When the powers mention pulling out an eighth chair, it means that it is the G7 that is having a conversation and they are about to welcome Ukraine as the eighth member of their select club.

Overall rating

This season was less entertaining, that is to say, less comic, than the prior two seasons, but it was instructive. It highlights how challenging dealing with some of the problems are, but it does offer hope. And it served its purpose as a campaign infomercial, because Zelenskyy was elected with more than 70% of the vote on the second round. It’s really hard to rate this, because it morphed into something completely different. If we are evaluating it as a comedy and entertainment, I would give two and a half out of four broken noses. But, if we are evaluating it as campaign material, I’d have to give it four out of four Ukrainian sunflowers.

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

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