I have, for the most part, elected to recuse myself from commenting on the geopolitical disaster going on in Ukraine right now. This decision has nothing to do with my lack of knowledge– like most people, I’m more than happy to shout my uninformed opinions from the rooftop like I’m the subject matter expert. No, my silence is due only to the fact that I find Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confusingly, extremely, irresistibly attractive. Yes, I understand he is probably corrupt AF. He could well be a war criminal. I get that. But whatever vibe Zelensky is putting out there, I am into it. I have neither explanation nor excuse. Don’t @ me.
It was this immutable fact of my existence, however, coupled with genuine curiosity that led me to hit “play” when Zelensky’s TV show Servant of the People came to Netflix. As you may know, the Ukrainian president was a comedian and actor before he entered the world of politics, and his best-known role is as Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, a Ukrainian schoolteacher who unwittingly enters, and wins, the presidential election of Ukraine. This fictional role is, in large part, what inspired him to run for president IRL, a campaign that was, if anything, MORE whimsical than his fictional counterpart’s.
The show is entirely in Ukrainian (duh) with subtitles rather than dubbing, which would be my preference anyway. Let me assure you, however, that the humor does not get lost in translation. My husband and I are only about six episodes in, but we have been LOLing the entire time. The show is, first and foremost, a political satire: the entire series opens with a group of wealthy old men, their faces always partially obscured, discussing their history pulling the strings of all political goings-on in their country. They agree, for funsies, to actually let the presidential election play out according to the will of the people, and not their own shadow council-like influence. The result?
President Vasiliy Petrovich Goloborodko, history teacher.
Equal parts absurdist and heartwarming, Servant of the People alternates between the present, during which Vasiliy and his family adjust to life as the President and First Family, and flashbacks to Vasiliy’s days as a teacher and how his campaign came to be. I don’t want to give much away, because I truly think most of y’all would appreciate the humor for what it is: political satire. I mean, you’re here, so obviously you don’t take this whole politics thing too seriously.
Further, as someone who has studied and/or lived abroad in four countries now, I can say with some authority that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to find out what makes them laugh. I could wax poetic for ages on the value of comedy as a tool for communication and subversion, but suffice it to say that watching Servant of the People has given me an insight into the Ukrainian people. More than that, it’s intimated the reality that we are not so far removed from them.
We laugh at the same things. We have the same frustrations. We appreciate the same virtues. We have the same irritating neighbors. (Not that my current neighbors are irritating– if y’all are reading this, hi! You’re great!) We are all living in the same world, even if it doesn’t seem that way at times.
And, if nothing else, we can all agree that the theme music, strange and random as it is, is freaking hilarious.