I heard about "I, Claudius" from the administrator I worked with when I was an undergrad. She watched an episode every couple of days and raved about it. Of course, back then I was too distracted by women to really comprehend what she was trying to tell me: that I, Claudius is one of the best-acted pieces of cinema history.
I, Claudius is much like HBO's Rome, only with a much lower budget. But what it lacks in scenery and wardrobe, I Claudius makes up for with its acting. The series is long, taking its time to tell history from the very beginning of Claudius' life through his reign as emperor and his death. But it's in the telling that the series excels just about anything Hollywood can put out.
I, Claudius' rich history is drawn from the memories of Claudius, the club-footed, stuttering Roman Emperor. How he came into power is a story unto itself. But it's not Claudius that's the real show. It's everyone else: the insanity of Caligula, the decadence of the Roman nobility, the orgies, the backstabbing, the poisoning-there's enough poison going around to fill an ocean. Through it all, Caligula observes…and survives.
What makes I, Claudius such a fantastic miniseries is the quality of its actors. Sure, you can watch it to see young Patrick Stewart and John Rhys-Davies in their prime, but that's missing the point. It's the actors who make this miniseries so watchable, from the husband/wife bickering of Augustus (Brian Blessed) and Livia (Sian Phillips), the weary bitterness of Tiberius (George Baker), the utter madness of Caligula (John Hurt), or Claudius himself, played with weary patience by Derek Jacobi. This isn't just filmmaking, it's a snapshot in time of when actors actually acted. Sometimes, the camera stays on an actor for up to 20 minutes straight, without a cutaway scene.
If there's a flaw, it's in the DVD itself. The video footage is grainy, the audio is choppy, and more often than not you get the sense that you're watching a play rather than a miniseries. Perhaps that's the highest compliment that can be paid to this miniseries.