Zelenskyy's Rise to Presidency — And How Political Fiction Affects Real Life

Fictional portrayals of politics and democracy may have even more power to enact change than other programming because many Americans believe shows like “West Wing” are realistic, according to new data.

In the seminal scene of the TV show that propelled former actor and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy into his current job, his character, a humble history teacher, explodes at a co-worker over the state of politics in their country — only bad choices at the voting booth, government officials wasting money on weekend chalets and, worst of all, how no one in the general public seems to care.

The profanity-filled rant is secretly filmed by one of Vasily Petrovych Goloborodko's students, who posts it online, where it goes viral, leading him to be elected president. The sitcom titled "Servant of the People," which returned to Netflix this month, follows Goloborodko's unlikely foray into politics, guided by his desire to fight against corruption and for a truly democratic Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and "Servant of the People"

Zelenskyy, who rose to fame first as an actor and comedian, became president in 2019 after advocating for similar values. "Servant of the People," which ran for three seasons and inspired the name of Zelenskyy's political party, stopped the same year to allow him to focus on his campaign. Since then, Ukraine has become increasingly democratic, likely playing a role in Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade.

"[The show] in the end rocketed Zelenskyy to the presidency," Bruce Williams, Ph.D., political scientist and media studies professor at University of Virginia, told NBCLX. "It's such a surreal thing to watch right now because it's hard to remember and hard to forget that Zelenskyy, as president of Ukraine, has been an unbelievably successful leader."

The show embraces the corruption lingering in Ukrainian politics after its Communist government was overthrown in 2014, but it still feels hopeful due to the backdrop of the people-led Maidan Revolution. It's this optimism amid authentic portrayals of the political challenges facing Ukraine that empowered voters to think, "Maybe this guy actually would be a good president," argues one study in the European Journal of Communication.

(If this sounds at all crazy, remember that reality show "The Apprentice" presented former President Donald Trump as such a successful, decisive and strong executive that he landed in the White House.)

Many Americans believe TV shows about politics are realistic

It's not just Zelenskky's supporters who believe fictional TV shows about democracy can have real-life implications.

According to a new survey conducted by Ipsos for NBCLX, Americans tend to think fictional shows about politics are "more realistic than not." Political drama "The West Wing," an aspirational take on American government that aired from 1999 to 2006, had the highest percent of respondents believing it's realistic at 51%. People under 35, however, were more likely to think newer shows, like "Veep" and "Parks and Recreation," both comedies, were realistic.

In fact, respondents believed in the accuracy of these kinds of shows so much that 29% said they were a “more realistic portrayal of how American government really works and the people in it” than cable news. About 33%, almost an even split, said cable news was more realistic. "It’s hard to say if this is a critique of the news or a positive for these shows, but it really speaks to how Americans construct beliefs around the people in government," Chris Jackson, senior vice president of public affairs at Ipsos, told NBCLX.

One example of a political TV show shaping real beliefs? A 2003 study found watching "The West Wing" made viewers feel more positively toward then-President George W. Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Another? Shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" are rooted in such positive portrayals of police officers that they were criticized as "copaganda" following George Floyd's death.

The merging of fact and fiction

Williams said Americans' tendency to believe fictional shows are just as realistic as the news speaks to the current information landscape, where it's harder than ever to evaluate sources and accuracy and to draw a line between fact and fiction.

"[When] everyone watched the nightly news, they had a shared sense of the problems the country faces," he said. "It didn't change their political beliefs, but the news certainly did influence people about what they thought were the most important issues of the day."

Without the same shared set of facts and assumptions from the nightly news, viewers can watch a cable news program and, based on the information gathered from their own internet echo chambers, decide whether they believe it's fact or fiction, Williams said. That these programs are often helmed by celebrities associated with specific world views, like Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow, can make the show's content even easier to dismiss for those with opposing views.

As people become more and more accustomed to reading news that validates their existing beliefs, they may try to seek out fictional stories that do the same thing, Williams posited, pointing to 2019 HBO series "Watchmen," a superhero story with a clearly antiracist overtone set during the 1921 Tulsa race riots.

"It both introduced a historical event that most people were not familiar with, and it led to attention to what had happened in Tulsa and identification of the living survivors," he said. "People who objected to that kind of treatment of race, they're not going to watch 'Watchmen.'"

Williams said the difference between fact and fiction has always been blurry because humans have always relied on placing facts into narratives in order to understand them. But only recently, because of the confusing, new information landscape, are more people accepting of this reality.

Fictional creators have biases, too

Given all the skepticism around journalists' biases and motivations for choosing to tell certain stories in certain ways, media consumers should apply the same mentality toward fictional TV and movies, Eric Kasper, Ph.D., author of "The United States Constitution in Film: Part of Our National Culture," told NBCLX.

"The object of telling those stories typically is not just to make money. They enter the [TV or film] profession because they have stories they want to tell and messages that they want to try to influence the public about, including voters and politicians," he said.

The "potential danger" arises, he continued, when "viewers are not taking [the stories] with a grain of salt, if they don't already have a solid civic, educational background ... if they may not have the knowledge to be able to say, 'They made that up.'"

For Williams, the key for any media consumer is to think critically about the creators behind everything you read, listen to or watch.

"Did they really do their research? Did they get it right? That's the question that we should be asking about all the media we consume," he said. "The arbitrary distinction between media that we regard as made-up, fictional, versus the news that we think of as nonfiction — that's not a good way of looking at the news or entertainment television."