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In 'Servant of the People,' viewers got a glimpse of the future President Zelenskyy

From March 2019: Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in the shooting of the television series<em> Servant of the People,</em> in which he played the role of the President of Ukraine. Then a presidential candidate, art imitated life when he was elected to office.
Sergei Supinsky
AFP via Getty Images
From March 2019: Volodymyr Zelenskyy takes part in the shooting of the television series Servant of the People, in which he played the role of the President of Ukraine. Then a presidential candidate, art imitated life when he was elected to office.

Updated March 21, 2022 at 5:59 PM ET

There is a moment late in the third episode of the TV series Servant of the People in which Volodymyr Zelenskyy's character seems to reveal how he would act, years later, when elected president of Ukraine in real life.

On the show, Zelenskyy plays a public school history teacher improbably and reluctantly elected to Ukraine's presidency. As he faces the crowd to deliver his first address, he tosses aside the empty platitudes in a speech written for him by aides and speaks from his heart.

"This is some story – a history teacher makes it into history," he quips, looking over at his former students, watching from the audience. "I do know one thing: One should act in a way that doesn't evoke shame when looking into children's eyes ... This is what I promise you, the people of Ukraine."

Even before Russia brought a horrifically bloody war to his country, Zelenskyy's personal story seemed like a realization of the tale presented in Servant of the People, which debuted as a hit comedy on Ukrainian TV in 2015.

Netflix has brought back the show for subscribers — allowing those who have seen a haggard Zelenskyy marshaling aid for his besieged country in real life, to watch him in a different, surprisingly parallel context. They can soak up a series which often articulates the principles of leadership and sacrifice the Ukrainian president now displays on the world stage.

Brought to the presidency through a viral video

On Servant of the People, the journey of Zelenskyy's character to the presidency begins — as so many public careers do these days – with a viral video.

Packing up his things after a class, the history teacher spouts off to a friend, burning with frustration over the government's corruption, the public's apathy and how a secretive group of oligarchs – always depicted in dark rooms, scheming over luxurious food and drink – run everything from the shadows.

One of his students secretly films the expletive-laden tirade and posts it online. When it catches the country's attention, his pupils create a crowdfunding platform which raises enough money for a campaign.

In a flash, he's elected to the presidency – challenged to live up to his tirade and deliver leadership that puts the people first.

"You're servants of the people," he tells the legislature in his first meeting with them. "In actuality, the Greek word 'democracy' translates as 'rule of the people.'... not 'rule over the people.'... Where does it say that servants should live better than their masters?"

It all goes over like a Ukrainian version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Robin Williams' 2006 misfire Man of the Year. But it's elevated by Zelenskyy's performance, which perfectly captures the many challenges his character faces – from feeling overwhelmed by the job to dismay when he sees how even his family tries to cash in on his new position.

The show is presented with dialogue in Russian and subtitles in English, so it's possible some of the satire's sting gets lost in translation. Much of the humor feels clunky – especially involving the president's self-centered relatives — and the plot points can be predictable. (Yes, establishment politicians laugh at his earnestness. Yes, the people love his honesty. Yes, his jaded aides eventually begin to believe in him.)

Servant of the People soars when it focuses on Zelenskyy's history teacher and his struggle to reform the government, using lessons from the past. He has a vision of Che Guevara berating him during a meeting with his cabinet, for failing to fully challenge corruption. He dreams of classic philosophers debating his dilemmas.

Even when he tries to draw a hard line with his family – rejecting perks and continuing to live with his parents in their small home – his prime minister arranges for a popular band to pop out of a cake and serenade the president's niece for her birthday.

The group, Dzidzio, was a real-life, popular band in Ukraine; another example of art-imitating-life-imitating-art in Servant of the People.

Some jokes take on Vladimir Putin

There are also lots of cheeky jabs at Vladimir Putin, from carping about the Russian president's expensive watches to a moment when Zelenskyy's character stops a riotous fistfight in the legislature by declaring — as a joke — that Putin had been deposed.

It makes you wonder how those snipes impacted the Russian leader, who isn't exactly known for his self-deprecating humor.

Zelenskyy's real life story is as unexpected as the series. A comic actor with a law degree, he founded a comedy group which eventually become the entertainment production company that made Servant of the People.

And, of course, he won Ukraine's version of Dancing with the Starsone clip widely circulated online shows him performing in a pink, Elvis-style jumpsuit, executing dance moves with precision and flair.

Servant of the People was so popular in Ukraine, that staffers from his production company registered a new political party with the same name. Though he initially resisted the idea he might run for office, Zelenskyy eventually entered the presidential race and was elected in 2019 — the same year the show ended.

Since Russian troops attacked Ukraine, Zelenskyy has been savvy about leveraging social media and personal appeals to galvanize support, referencing Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks when addressing the U.S. Congress. Recently, he's also signed a decree combining all national TV channels into one platform, invoking martial law and citing the need to combat disinformation.

Now, as Zelenskyy continues fighting to save his country, the character he played in Servant of the People offers a compelling look at where those values may have originated.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.