This review contains some mild spoilers.
I watched this earlier than I planned in part in getting impatient for the American season 3 to start, and in part because I heard rumours of no more BBC programming on Netflix. Watching both series is very illustrative.
The original British mini series (the first season) is considerably more realistic than the American show, though this realism goes off the rails a little bit in the subsequent series.
But it is clear to me that the American show has learned lessons from the British one, and from the intervening “Golden Age” of American television that has occurred since the British show first aired. For one thing, the characterizations beyond Francis are far, far superior in the American show: everyone has a back-story. In the British version, there are some with back-stories but far more cardboard cut-outs.
But the American version also goes way deeper into US politics than the British does to British politics. By that I mean that, though both are based in a relatively realistic political setting – I speak in a legalistic or institutional sense, and not in a characterization sense – the American version deals much better with the minutiae. For example: as a Canadian, I do not exactly know how F.U. could get the King to abdicate and it is never explained. It just happens. The American version handles this stuff better. The American version also keeps its actors on, so there aren’t massive changes in cast from season to season, which is something that feels weak about the British version.
Of course the American version also stretches our credulity much more openly than the British version, so that’s something in the original’s favour. And we must remember how old this show is. Frankly, I know of nothing else like it when it originally aired and it has to be regarded as some kind of landmark in British television – at least, regarded as such by someone who doesn’t know enough British television – in part for thankfully departing from the typically paint-by-numbers approaches of so many British mysteries and thrillers made for television.
On the whole it’s quite good. It’s hard to remember standards were different once, but if you can – if you’re willing to remember that TV hasn’t been like movies for very long – you’ll be pleasantly surprised. (It’s probably better to watch this version first, though, unlike me. If I could do it all over again, I would absolutely watch the British version first.)