The streaming era has certainly thrown up some surprise hit shows and films that, previously, would have been restricted to success in their home territories. In the pre-digital world, it’s virtually unthinkable that global smash hits such as Netflix’s South Korean drama Squid Game or the Spanish hit La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) would have achieved anything like the kind of worldwide success they did.
Servant of the People looks like it could be the next big breakout hit, which is perhaps a little strange given that it’s a seven-year-old TV sitcom that finished its run on Ukrainian TV in 2019. This becomes less strange, however, when we point out that its star is currently one of the most recognisable faces in the world — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The show has sparked something of a belated rush from international broadcasters and streaming services, with MBC in the Middle East, All 4 in the UK, and Arte in both the German and French markets picking up the show since the events in Ukraine took over our newspapers and TVs.
Netflix actually used to hold the rights to the show in several international markets, including the US, but that was in the days before most of us had heard of Zelenskyy. Its ownership has currently lapsed, although American viewers can still watch the show on YouTube, and it would be no surprise to find the streaming major picking US rights up once more, given Zelenskyy’s growing global fame.
Servant of the People is uncannily prescient. It tells the story of an everyday schoolteacher with no political experience, who becomes the president of Ukraine almost by accident when a clip of him berating corruption in the country goes viral.
Four years after the show’s 2015 debut, Zelenskyy, another man with no political experience, found himself standing for election, and winning, for his new party, also called Servant of the People, on an anti-corruption ticket.
This strangely circular tale of quirky, self-fulfilling prophecy picked up some media attention outside Ukraine at the time, but nothing like the level of fame recent events have thrust upon the comic-turned-politician, though he’d probably gladly swap the international fame for a return to some degree of normality for his country.
Zelenskyy’s fame may be new to global audiences, but to Ukrainian and Russian viewers, he’s been a familiar face for more than two decades. Much has been made in recent weeks of Zelenskyy’s role voicing the marmalade-loving, nomadic bear in the Ukrainian versions of the Paddington movies (2014 and 2017).
That may be his most instantly recognisable screen adventure internationally, but his rise to regional fame began in the 1990s when he was part of a team that won the long-running Russian TV comedy competition Klub Vesyolykh i Nakhodchivykh, or KVN for short.
This story, having begun on Russian TV, may seem incongruous in light of current events, but in fact, most of the now-president’s TV and film work over the course of a two-and-a-half decade career has been in Russian.
Ukraine has a significant Russian-speaking minority, and like most former Soviet states, most of its population speak Russian to a good level anyway. It makes simple economic sense for Ukrainian producers to make films in a language that can also be understood by the much larger neighbouring market, particularly when Ukrainian, Baltic, Kazakh and Russian actors frequently appear in the same productions, with Russian as their common language.
Zelenskyy’s films, including the romcom 8 First Dates, its two sequels and Love in Vegas, have even picked up nominations and wins at the Russian National Movie Awards. Zelenskyy was also an outspoken opponent of Ukrainian plans to ban Russian art and artists from the country following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, a stance which resulted in some of his own work being banned in Ukraine in 2017, and again in 2018.
Zelenskyy has been subjected to plenty of bans in Russia as well over the course of his career, including Servant of the People, which ran in Russia for precisely one day before being pulled out over a perceived slight on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It seems incredible that a comic whose acting career is largely marked by harmless romcoms and amiable sitcoms should find himself suddenly among the world’s most important political figures.
Even his occasional sojourns into politics on screen are very much at the harmless end of the spectrum, whether playing a slapstick, womanising Napoleon in the 2012 comedy Corporal vs Napoleon, or an incredulous new president in Servant of the People, where the comedy is again more polite chortle than hard-hitting analysis.
But like Servant of the People’s President Goloborodko, Zelenskyy’s loveable, mild-mannered everyman now finds himself forced to become a strong leader in circumstances he could never have predicted.
If only his latest leading role was also fictional.
Scroll through the gallery below for pictures of art being created in support of the people of Ukraine: