This is, technically, two separate series, but they function like one with a rebranding mid-way. The show aired from 1980 to 1987, giving us a total of 38 episodes.
In the first series, we follow the career of James Hacker, a parliamentarian who is given a position in government, the wonderfully vague Minister of Administrative Affairs. This is, I’m led to believe, not a real position. But since it is so non-descript, they were able to have the story go in whatever direction they wanted. Hacker is a reasonably good man, but he is also a politician. Also, he has kind of a Churchill complex. He wants to be seen as the “great man” of government. Or, at least, doesn’t want to be seen as a failure.
As a member of cabinet, Hacker inherits the department’s Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Sir Humphrey is everything Hacker isn’t. He’s a noble (and therefore went to the “right” schools, and knows the “right” people). He doesn’t care one whit about politics or party. He cares about bureaucracy, order, rules, and above all, keeping the real power away from politicians and in the hands of the people who really run the government: civil servants.
The man caught in the middle is Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley. Bernard is an employee of the civil service, and so has a duty to Sir Humphrey. But he’s also a commoner, inspired by Hacker’s desire to do “good”, however that might be framed at any given moment. A throughline of the show is the struggle between these two forces. Bernard never truly becomes “a man of the people” nor a “solid civil servant”. He dabbles in both extremes.
The second series follow Hacker’s rise to the position of Prime Minister. If Sir Humphrey has the upper hand most of the time in the first series, the tables are ever so slightly turned in Hacker’s favor in the second. But the basics of the show remain consistent, if the titles and the sets do not.
While it may feel old fashioned to have a show with so few women of importance, it is, at least for me, a nice change to have a show with almost no romantic component at all. No Sam and Diane banter in this.
These shows are stinging satire of democratic government, sort of the more cynical, comedy flip-side of the earnest portrayal you see in something like The West Wing. All the characters are whip-smart, though not above the occasional gaffe. The end result is some of the talkiest sitcom episodes you’ll ever see. I find joy in watching Hacker and Sir Humphrey joust with language while Bernard throws in the occasional wry comment.
The show has a definite beginning, and the hint of an arc, as Hacker grows in his job(s). But there really wasn’t a series finale, just one last episode. It’s permissible to imagine these two continuing their conflicts over the nature of government forever.
(The show was rebooted with a new cast in 2013, but it appears to have been a pale imitation of the original, so I haven’t sought it out.)