Servant of the People review: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s sitcom is a revelation

You couldn’t make it up!” would be the standard newspaperly thing to say about the fate of Volodymyr Zelensky. A comic actor; the winner of the Ukrainian version of Strictly; the Ukrainian voice of Paddington Bear: this is the man whom history has cast as the President of Ukraine at this dire moment?

Yes – and Zelensky has embodied and amplified his country’s resolve in a way that few observers could have predicted, least of all Vladimir Putin. Brave, honest, direct and humane, he is everything the Russian autocrat is not. There will be Zelensky boulevards and Zelensky Metro stations after this hell passes.

And the funny thing is, Zelensky did, sort of, make it up, authoring his own fate in a way that can’t help but feel uncanny. The reason he became president is that he wrote and starred in a sitcom about a likeable everyman who inadvertently becomes president – through the simple means of telling the truth.

The Servant of the People (Sluga Narodu) ran on Ukrainian TV 2015-2018. It was extremely popular – popular enough to earn Zelensky 73 per cent of the vote when he stood for real in the 2019 Presidential elections. Which surely makes it the most geopolitically significant sitcom ever created – and a smart buy for Channel 4, which now presents it with English subtitles as a curious form of post-modern, war-adjacent escapism.

There is something immediately jarring, watching it, knowing what is to come. The first episode opens on Kyiv’s famous Independence Square at night, as three shadowy oligarchs place bets as to which of their preferred candidates will triumph in the forthcoming election. There’s a billboard visible: “Slava Ukraina – Geroyem Slava” (Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the Heroes), a chant from the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-21) that resounds once more.

But I have found that binge-watching Servant of the People has been precisely the sort of displacement activity I craved. It’s at once a way of deepening an appreciation of the lives that have been ripped apart by the conflict – the earnest, bow-tied students; the long-suffering workers; the family celebrations – and also, a compulsively watchable sitcom with some very good jokes.

Zelensky is huskily endearing as Vasyli Petrovych Holoborodko, a down-on-his-luck history teacher who is living with his parents in a dilapidated (but rather stylish) apartment, his marriage has broken down over money issues. His moment of political transformation comes when a fellow teacher interrupts his lesson to commandeer his students to help build a polling station for the forthcoming elections. “Why are you taking my students?” Holoborodko asks. “Why not interrupt a maths class?” His counterpart laughs. “Maths and history? You’re comparing a dick and a finger.”

Holoborodko warms into a glorious, expletive-filled rant that unleashes 25 years’ worth of frustration at Ukrainian politics – the corruption, the lies, the thievery, the complacency. Little does he realise that a student is filming him on his phone. The clip goes viral. Soon, we’re into a classic fish-out-of-water comedy, as Holoborodko and family readjust to their new status.

OK: quibbles. I could do without some of the incidental music and the humour can be a little broad (though not much broader than, say, the French sitcom, Call My Agent). But it is deftly constructed, charmingly acted and has some excellent jokes too. As Holoborodko tours his new presidential palace, an apparatchik points out a priceless chandelier. “Remember the 2008 default? There it is.” It’s also hard to imagine an Anglo-American sitcom featuring anything like the dream-conversation between Plutarch and Herodotus that opens the second episode.

It’s a shame that some of the sharpest satire is, inevitably, lost in translation. There’s a particularly funny moment when the Prime Minister (played by Stanislav Bolkan, a delight) is showing Holoborodko the sort of luxe accessories he can now expect to wear as President, including an array of designer watches. Putin, he explains, wears a Hublot. “Putin – Hublot?” Holoborodko responds. This is a play on Putin khuilo, a popular Donbas football chant meaning, basically, F**k Putin.

Elsewhere, a little knowledge of regional politics goes a long way. In the third episode, Holoborodko is introduced to his half-witted body-double Grisha (also played by Zelensky) who will stand in for him in emergencies. Say, if someone tries to assassinate him. Or he has to have a drink with the Belarusian President, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Ba-dum-tsh!

But what gives Servant of the People its deeper resonance is the simple and undeniable message at its heart. “The truth is the truth, no matter how unpleasant,” Holoborodko explains to his history class in the aftermath of his rant. In an age when the very concept of truth has been bent and mangled for the most cynical of ends, it feels like a revelation.

Zelenskyy: The Man Who Took on Putin will broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday March 6 at 6.45pm, followed by Servant of The People at 10:35pm (series 1 and 2 of Servant of the People will be available in full on All 4 at a later date)

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