Netflix is now streaming two seasons of “Servant of the People,” the 2015-2018 Ukrainian comedy series created and produced by (and starring) Volodmyr Zelensky as Vasily Goloborodko, a high-school history teacher who is catapulted to the presidency of Ukraine after his profane rant against government corruption and incompetence is filmed by one of his students and goes viral on social media. This is the show, as everyone knows by now, that catapulted Zelensky himself to the presidency of Ukraine in real life.
It’s worth watching. It is much funnier that I expected – Zelensky is a very talented comic actor. And the “production values” are much higher than I expected, too; I think that I was, rather stupidly, expecting it to look like one of those films from Eastern Europe in the 60s – all grainy black-and-white, badly lit, dull and depressing backdrops, etc. – but in fact it looks a lot more like “Friends” or “Parks and Recreation.” Very professionally put together, well-directed, well-acted, nicely-paced.
The current events in Ukraine, needless to say, add a terribly somber subtext to what was originally a very light-hearted show. It gives the show a very strange emotional resonance, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. A number of episodes take place out of doors, as “President Goloborodko” travels from one part of Kyiv to another, and the scenes of life on the streets of Kyiv are simultaneously lovely – it looks to me like all of the filming was done in springtime, and the city is gloriously awash in flowers and flowering trees – and heart-breaking, given the recent images showing the savagery that the Russians have unleashed in and around the city.
It’s a better show, by a good margin, than its US counterpart, “Celebrity Apprentice: The White House Years.” To be sure, “CA:TWHY” was, at times, pretty hilarious; who can forget the episode where “President Trump” is tearing up all of the classified documents on his desk, and his aides are crawling around on the floor collecting the fragments so that they could tape the documents back together? Or the one with the Sharpie? Or the “Drink Your Bleach!” episode. Or the one where head consigliere “Rudy Guliani” holds his press conference in the driveway of the Four Seasons Landscaping Company (mistaking it for the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Philadelphia), to unveil their crack legal team’s bombshell evidence of election fraud?
It gave new meaning to the phrase “You couldn’t make this up.”
But overall, the guy who played “President Trump” didn’t have Zelensky’s gift for comedy. There was too much anger behind his humor, too much snarl behind the smile, for my taste.
And, like so many shows, CA:TWHY got progressively more outlandish and less believable – more desperate to hang onto those eyeballs – as it went into season four and beyond. The whole premise of Season Five – that “President Trump” would foment the storming of the Capitol to overturn the results of the 2020 election and pay no price, political or otherwise, for having done so, but would instead emerge from the debacle as the titular head of the once-respectable Republican Party – was just too absurd to be credible. And satire, to be any good, has to have some foundation of credibility.
And if you’ve seen any of the more recent episodes from Season 6 – and ratings are way down, so you probably missed them – you know exactly what I’m talking about. Could anyone possibly believe that “Ex-President Trump” would, in a rare one-on-one interview in the midst of a brutal attack on Ukraine and its people, call on the Russian President – with whom he has had fairly cordial relations – not to cease fire, or to allow for more humanitarian corridors, or to stop murdering civilians, but to send him some dirt on Hunter Biden?! I mean, really. It calls to mind Tom Lehrer’s memorable comment that “political satire became obsolete the moment Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Prize.”