How Ukraine's Wacky Sitcom President Became Its Real One
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Because you haven't read enough headlines about Ukraine lately, here's a fun reminder: current president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected to office in 2015 ... in a comedy show. And then again in 2019, in real life. While this isn't the first example of an outrageous entertainment figure winning a presidential election (we're talking about Park and Recreations and Carmen Sandiego star Joe Biden, obviously), Zelenskyy's case is special because his campaign seemingly sprung up at the last minute and won in a way that parallels the events of his satirical show.
Zelenskyy debuted as a comedian as a teenager in the '90s and went out to star in a series of Russian-Ukrainian rom-coms of the "posing awkwardly with a woman on the poster" variety.
In 2015, he starred in Servant of the People, a show about a public school teacher who is unexpectedly elected president after his profanity-laden rant against establishment politicians is recorded by a student and goes viral. An example of a plotline: Zelenskyy's cabinet manages to clear out violent protests over an alcohol tax by announcing that a meteorite is about to hit the planet. "I suggested an epidemic," one minister says. (We now know neither solution would work very well.)
The show became so popular that it spawned a movie sequel where Zelenskyy's character is somehow forced to resort to Mrs. Doubtfire-like cross-dressing shenanigans:
The movie also includes a fantasy sequence in which the president gets fed up with the parliament's bickering and machine guns everyone to death:
So, yeah, it's easy to see the show's appeal. According to Zelenskyy, he'd had the idea since the early 2000s, although it was originally supposed to be a reality show where non-politicians would come on as candidates and regular people would vote for them. "Maybe someday we'll return to the original idea," he said in 2017 -- and then he kinda did in 2019, when he announced his candidacy only four months before the election under a party named after his show.
Zelenskyy ran an unusual campaign, in that ... there was no campaign. He gave almost no interviews, skipped the debates, and communicated with voters mostly via Instagram and YouTube. He also avoided talking about policy, other than in a general "sh*t sucks, huh" way. Evidently, this struck a chord with the populace, since Zelenskyy won the runoff election with over 70% of the vote. By the way, his character on the show won with 60%, probably because the writers thought no one would buy a higher number than that.
Of course, there are differences between the character and the real person: struggling public school teachers don't have off-shore accounts in Panama, for one thing. Also, the whole thing about Putin's troops breathing down his neck is a new development added by the gritty reboot called reality. Wikipedia claims a fourth season of Servant of the People is "currently in production," and while something tells us Zelenskyy doesn't have a whole lot of time for that right now, that should be a pretty interesting batch of episodes there.
Top image: Netflix, Wikimedia Commons