Decades: From Game of Thrones to Outlander, our favourite TV shows of last 20 years


From its premiere in April 2011 to its grand finale in May, HBO’s Game Of Thrones has straddled the decade like a televisual colossus. And don’t think the simile isn’t apt: across its eight seasons and 73 episodes it has racked up 161 Emmy Award nominations and 58 wins, seen its catchphrase turned into internet memes (“Winter Is Coming”) and made household names of characters such as Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark. Fact: people actually name their children after some of them. Based on fantasy author George RR Martin’s A Song Of Fire And Ice series of novels it is nothing short of a phenomenon. Scotland could have done better out of the production – large parts of it were shot in Northern Ireland – but for Scottish GoT fans Winterfell will forever be associated with Doune Castle, which stood in for the Stark’s forbidding fortress in the pilot episode.

2 The Killing, 2011

Although originally screened in Denmark in 2007, Søren Sveistrup’s gripping crime drama didn’t land on BBC Four until 2011. But when it did, it became a sensation. It made a star of lead actress Sofie Gråbøl, made her distinctive Faroe Island jumper a fashion must-have and proved a game-changer in terms of how British audiences related to and tolerated subtitled programmes. It also caused our own domestic output to be re-calibrated to fit the Scandi Noir vibe (without The Killing there would have been no Hinterland, no Shetland, no Walter Presents strand on Channel 4) and ushered in a wave of other northern European imports, most notably The Bridge and Borgen which, like The Killing, benefitted from no-nonsense female leads.

3 Fleabag, 2016

If a very clever somebody isn’t already writing a thesis on Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s all-conquering, Emmy Award-winning black comedy then it’s only a matter of time. Her guiding principle was to take every TV rule she could think of and break it – along with the fourth wall itself. Rude (very), funny (extremely), heart-breakingly honest and eminently quotable – “Hair is everything, Anthony” – it put the life of a difficult, mixed-up young woman under the microscope and didn’t flinch from what it discovered squirming there on the glass. Aided and abetted by a starry cast which included Olivia Colman, Sian Clifford, Bill Paterson and Andrew Scott, aka Hot Priest, she followed that with Killing Eve (a Golden Globe winner) and was then drafted in to write the new Bond film.

4 Outlander, 2016

If Scotland missed out on Game Of Thrones it hit paydirt with Outlander, the adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s series of time-travelling romance novels which first aired on US channel Starz in 2014. Filmed in several sites around Scotland and featuring as one of its two leads a dashing Jacobite soldier (Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan), it told the story of former wartime nurse Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe) who finds herself catapulted back in time to the Scotland of 1743. And guess who she falls in love with? Never as garlanded as Game Of Thrones it retains a massive cult appeal and the eternal thanks of Visit Scotland.

5 Black Mirror, 2011

One of the most notable and artistically profitable trends in television over the last decade has been the rehabilitation of the anthology series. Suddenly a whole generation of Twilight Zone fans seemed to come crawling out of the woodwork. Leading the way was Charlie Brooker with Black Mirror, a series examining our relationship with technology. Brooker being Brooker, that’s a relationship that rarely ends well and which has outcomes that vary from the surreal to the ridiculous to the downright dystopian. The mirror of the title, of course, is the one on your smartphone or tablet. Now slumming it on the cash-rich Netflix platform after two series on Channel 4, the series has won numerous Emmy Awards, including for its ground-breaking interactive episode Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

6 Love Island , 2005

Although it began in 2005 as Celebrity Love Island, the reality show was cancelled after its 2006 run and by the time it was revived in 2015 it was a very different beast in a very different world. Why? In a word, technology. Instagram launched in 2010, it introduced auto-filters for selfies the following year and in 2013 the word itself was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. By 2014 dating app Tinder was registering a billion “swipes” a day. Cue the social media-obsessed Selfie Generation, cue Love Island, in which photogenic young men and women strip to their bikinis/budgie smugglers and pair off as the Great British Public participates via an app. Sounds a bit like an episode of Black Mirror, doesn’t it?

7 Downton Abbey, 2010

STV didn’t bother to show the first series of Julian Fellowes’s society drama when it aired in late 2010, opting to screen Taggart instead. Big mistake. One volte face by red-faced executives later, it did finally air in Scotland. By then the Crawley family and their luxurious pile was already a firm favourite with audiences who were enjoying seeing Upstairs Downstairs re-tooled for a slightly later era, in this case the years immediately preceding the First World War. Yes, it wallowed in a strange sort of nostalgia for forelock-tugging and old-fashioned patrician rectitude and yes you could argue its appeal anticipated Brexit – but few British costume dramas have proved as popular, durable or (witness the Stateside success of this year’s film spin-off) exportable

8 Stranger Things, 2016 (via the 1980s)

Nothing is more emblematic of the 2010s than the rise and rise of the streaming platform Netflix – and nothing on Netflix has landed with as big a splash or caused as many cultural ripples as the Duffer Brothers’ 1980s-set sci-fi series. Talking of emblematic, it established a template for a new kind of TV show in which young writers and directors take influences from (and references to) decades gone by and build something new around them. For Matt and Ross Differ in Stranger Things it was a mish-mash of Gremlins, The Goonies, E.T, Stand By Me, 1980s pop videos and Giorgio Moroder synth soundtracks. Then they cast 1980s icon Winona Ryder in a lead role, found an 11-year-old actress (Millie Bobby Brown) who would agree to a crew cut and set to work. The result was a TV sensation.

9 Line Of Duty, 2012

Jed Mercurio’s police procedural about AC12, an anti-corruption unit in an un-named British city, initially proved something of a slow burn. But it caught fire in seasons two and three with the arrival of Keeley Hawes to spar with regulars Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar, while seasons four and five landed even bigger fish in the shape of Mission Impossible star Thandie Newton and Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham. By the end, the entire nation was on tenterhooks, though don’t expect series six to resolve any of those burning questions. Looking back over seven years of supporting casts is quite an eye-opener too: Lennie James, Mark Bonnar, Neil Morrissey, Gina McKee, Lee Ingleby, Michael Nardone and Paul Higgins have all featured, and who can forget Craig Parkinson’s uber-creepy Matthew ‘Dot’ Cottan, aka The Caddy?

10 The Crown, 2016

Taking its primary lesson from Noughties hit Mad Men – use a story about office relationships to tell a bigger story about an era, a country and a society – Peter Morgan’s The Crown turned the office into a place and used the British royal family as a prism through which to view the history of the second half of the 20th century. It also gave Matt Smith something to do after Doctor Who – he played the Duke Of Edinburgh alongside Claire Foy’s HRH in the first two seasons. For season three that role has now passed to Tobias Menzies while Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham-Carter play Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret respectively. There are six seasons planned and the show is currently up to the late 1970s. Exquisitely written, filmed and acted, The Crown is quite literally one of the jewels in the Netflix crown as it heads into the 2020s.


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