NB: I have not read the novels yet, but I'm afraid I'm going to be a little negative.
I had a “couple” of problems with this drama: firstly, I thought it felt a little 'empty' in terms of atmosphere. The camera-work, lighting and (to a lesser extent) the art-design was, for me, rather 'plain' - as if they were going for a very orthodox, no-frills adaptation of the novels. Likewise, I also thought that the soundtrack was rather dreary and 'safe' - although 'Tudor Pop' admittedly isn't my cup of tea. It would be nice - in general - if TV dramas would take more of a risk with their soundtracks: in the last week, I have re-watched Paul Thomas Anderson's “There Will be Blood” (with Jonny Greenwood's superb, experimental soundtrack) and then saw Birdman (which has a soundtrack almost solely composed of avant-garde jazz percussion) and was struck by how much these films were enhanced by a more original approach to background music.
Secondly, I'm not sure about Mark Rylance as a TV actor. I saw him in several Shakespeare productions and he took my breath away but, on TV, I find him somewhat nondescript and 'static' - which may of course be how they were trying to portray Cromwell... a man who stuck to the shadows and didn't make a name for himself, at first. And, as I suspected, I thought that it showed how much more experience and screen-presence Damien Lewis has during their short scene together - although I also thought that this was Rylance's best scene also.
I thought the decision to cast Rylance was odd when I heard it (appropriate for the fragile David Kelly, but not the bruiser in Holbein's portrait) but presumed the director etc. had something special in mind, because they decided to delay production to get him. I haven’t read the books as I said, but I was still looking forward to this, but I was really disappointed. Rylance is wrong for the role, and he's on screen constantly looking world-weary and sad and old, with his tired eyes and croaky flat voice - not dynamic, not convincing as the former soldier, merchant and lawyer with the vim and brains, social skills and physical presence to rise though the Tudor court. Jonathan Pryce, a better screen actor, looked beaten throughout (even with the time-jumping, I didn't get a sense of 'fall from power'). Half the time I couldn't work out if Rylance wasn't just little startled and a little confused at everything.
I think “The Wire” changed the dimensions on how you introduce a character in a television series. Leave out the exposition and let the viewer gather clues based on their actions. I think in this it was suggesting that Cromwell, now devoid of his emotional grounding, was beginning to shift in character to something more calculating and ruthless. I think the problem with this first series is that they just don't have enough time to cover everything from the books, so they're just diving into the thick of it, with only brief flashbacks to give a feel for what had happened earlier. Especially for those who haven't read the books like myself, it does mean I don't get a real understanding of what made Cromwell who he is, and how he is so very different from all the toffs at court.
I wish the budget had stretched to 8 or even 10 episodes. The Tudors needed 20 episodes to cover roughly the same time period of the books. The scenes have to hang together or cut against each other. They have to relate both in sub-text and plot. This was lacking. Most scenes were isolated little dramas, without any lead in. There was no through-line. Not really. Just a character wandering through each scene. There was also no direction or rhythm to the dissemination of plot and story.
Rylance is a wonderful actor but physically wrong for Cromwell: he'd have been a ringer for Thomas More, however. And I thought the time-hopping was a bit clunky, relying on wordy captions which weren't left on the screen for long enough.
Bottom-line: At times I was bored to the core of my being; I love history but this was dimly lit, Mark Rylance walked around like a man who was hit in the face with a kipper, Claire Foy (Anne Boleyn) as a woman who had changed the world was portrayed as plain looking with no wit and poor dress sense (Joanne Whalley as Katherine of Aragon was lovely though); the plot jumped more times than a kangaroo; I would rather watch repeats of Scooby Doo; it's worse than “Jamaica Inn” and that’s saying something; I could not watch this to the end; I was losing the will to live; utter drivel.