Ukraine’s New Kind of Reality Show

By Bob Gaydos

TV President Goloborodko (left) and real-life President Zelensky, art imitating life imitating art.

  It is life imitating art imitating life all at the same time and, truth be told, if the life part wasn’t so horrific at its core, the art part would probably not be nearly as entertaining as it is, subtitles notwithstanding.

      Yes, I’m talking about Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko, “The Servant of the People.”  The Ukrainian TV show’s first season is streaming on Netflix. Fascinating.

       Zelensky is the man who made (created, produced and starred in) the series about the history teacher who becomes president of Ukraine without really wanting the job. Zelensky was propelled to the country’s presidency for real on the strength of the TV show and the popularity of his character … and him, too, I suspect.

      It’s impossible not to admire and root for the TV president as he takes on Ukraine’s entrenched corruption and cronyism everywhere he turns, including within his own family, just as much of the world has found it impossible not to root for and provide aid to the real-life President Zelensky as he stands up to the Russian invaders.

     What first struck me about the TV show is how bitingly direct it is in its depiction of corruption and cronyism in Ukraine, all the while treating it as satirical humor made all the more biting since it reflects the truth about UkraIne. It’s the kind of TV show that could not be aired in a place like, say, Russia. Only a people who respect and defend freedom of speech could tolerate such an unflattering, albeit funny, look at themselves.

     And yet, at the same time, one watches the show knowing that Zelensky ended it after three seasons to run for president for real because, one might suspect, he grew weary of merely mocking a system of greed and gluttony and thought he might as well try to challenge the real thing.

     There are certainly enough crowd-pleasing campaign-style speeches made in the show by the TV president that would easily serve well for an actual presidential candidate. I have a feeling Zelensky contributed to the TV messaging and may have decided it fit him in real life.

      And again, at the same time, the viewer sees daily reports of the real Ukraine, fighting for its very existence against the Putin-led Russia routinely skewered in “Servant of the People.” And it is being led, not by a history teacher whose students propelled him to the presidency, but by an actor/comedian, whose fans propelled him to the presidency.

     Finally, the most astonishing aspect of watching this show to me is knowing that the actor/comedian-turned-president turns out to be a real-life hero, leading his fellow Ukrainians in an extraordinary rejection of the supposedly elite Russian military. Zelensky has risen to the occasion and has become, in fact, the kind of heroic figure that history teacher Goloborodko would extol to his class.

     You really cannot make this stuff up.

Bob Gaydos is writer-in-residence at

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