The Top 50 of the Decade: 20 – 11

by | Dec 15, 2019 | All

It’s time for our Top 20 of the Decade. If you’ve missed the countdown so far you can find out what made 50-20 here

Let’s crack on.

20) Game of Thrones (2011, HBO) No television series defined the decade as much as HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s fantasy series.

From its much-hyped arrival in 2011 to its controversial finale earlier this year, Game of Thrones was the biggest beast on the TV landscape, constantly discussed and dissected both online and in real life, referenced in other TV shows from The Simpsons to Parks & Recreation and watched by everyone from Barack Obama to Jennifer Lopez.

So why was Game of Thrones so dominant?

In part, because we’d never seen anything quite like it on TV before – and for good reason. Martin, the author of the original hugely popular books, had worked on TV and wrote A Song of Ice and Fire in response to his experiences in that world.

His epic fantasy, which both referenced tropes and inverted them, creating a world filled with grey characters who acted in complicated and often self-interested ways, was intended to be unfilmable. No wonder then that when HBO first announced they would be adapting it for TV with scriptwriters David Benioff and DB Weiss on board, the response was largely sceptical. Furthermore, that scepticism appeared justified when the original pilot was reshot and the key role of Daenerys Targaryen, exiled heir to the Seven Kingdoms, recast.

Yet when the series finally arrived those critics were largely silenced. Yes, the opening episode is a little clunky, having to fit a lot of exposition into an hour but it was also clear from the start that HBO’s risk had paid off. This was drama on a grand scale, big of budget, bold of plot and quite unlike anything that had been seen on TV before.

It helped, of course, that Martin’s source material was rich both in gasp-inducing plot twists and sharply funny liners, ensuring that even self-proclaimed haters of fantasy found themselves dragged into this dark world where no one could be trusted and the wrong word in the wrong ear could lead to death.

Then came the audacious penultimate episode of the first series in which the show’s nominal hero, the upright Ned Stark played by Sean Bean, was shockingly executed essentially for the crime of being an honourable man.

With that moment Game of Thrones became genuine water-cooler TV. Book fans recorded their family and friends’ reactions to Ned’s death, shocked viewers posted online clips of their disbelieving responses and Game of Thrones was increasingly the drama on everyone’s lips – and not just because of how unusual it was in this online age for no reader to have spoiled the twist.

By the end of the third series – which featured the gruesome Red Wedding, Martin’s most shocking storyline in which large numbers of the Stark family and their supporters met their doom – Game of Thrones was the most-watched (and most illegally downloaded) show in the world.

People named their children Arya and Khaleesi; essays were written on the show’s penchant for ‘sexposition’ aka the delivery of large chunks of important plot points by the naked ladies of Littlefinger’s brothel and online forums raged with debates as to whether Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) was truly bad and how much wine his siblings Cersei (Lena Headey) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) actually consumed during their poisonous head-to-heads.

At this point Game of Thrones was a series at the height of its powers. Talking about it and watching it was huge amounts of fun, even if fans felt increasingly uncomfortable about the violence and cruelty at its heart.

For any show that critiques war and violence (as Martin was undoubtedly doing in the books) walks a very fine line between showing the true cost of war’s brutality and descending into torture porn and Game of Thrones walked a finer line than most, particularly where its treatment of women was concerned.

A notorious scene in the fourth series saw Benioff and Weiss turn a complicated reunion between Jaime and Cersei into rape while the extended torture of Alfie Allen’s Theon coupled with the decision to centre the (TV series-invented) wedding night rape of Sansa (Sophie Turner) by her new husband Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) through Theon’s eyes made for unpleasant and queasy viewing.

As the show progressed so Benioff and Weiss pulled away from Martin’s material (in part out of necessity due to his book series being unfinished) and the author himself stepped back from the show. Storylines became broader, relationships more fragmented and it was hard to escape the feeling that the writers had lost control of their world.

The eighth and final series was widely condemned by both critics and fans, although I’d argue that the problems began the series before when far too much time was wasted following characters on circular journeys with the writers seemingly more interested in big-budget effects than believable characterisation.

The one-time biggest show on the planet ultimately ended with more of a whimper than a bang and the Internet is full of pieces dissecting just what went wrong.  Yet regardless of how you feel about the conclusion – furious, sad, irritated, actually ok with it, relatively pleased – no other show on this list was quite so imperious in its prime. Written by Sarah Hughes.

19) Unforgotten (2015, ITV) Whilst the 2000s had Waking the Dead as its great cold case crime drama, the 2010s had to wait till halfway through the decade to see the arrival of its own take on the classic genre. It came in 2015 with Chris Lang’s ITV drama Unforgotten. Centred on the careers of DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar), Unforgotten tracks our heroes across three thrilling cases that have enough twists to ensure that we as the audience are on the edge of our seats. Unlike many other detective series of the past few years, we really get to see the impact violent crime has on individuals and their families; the series is not shy about showing the pain of not knowing what happened to a loved one or what it can do to a family or to an individual and how the secret of being responsible for a murder can fester away inside you.

The first series focuses on the discovery of the body of Jimmy Sullivan in the basement of a former youth centre. The team’s journey takes them across the country as they encounter people who knew Jimmy in 1975 when he disappeared. Throughout the first series, Lang perfectly keeps us on the edge of our seats and it is well worth it with the twist ending satisfying us yet also ensuring we questions our conception of what true justice is.

The questioning as to what truly is justice is further carried on in the second series which centres on the murder of David Walker who vanished in 1990. Both the first and second series offer interesting variations on what true justice is with the first questioning whether someone can be guilty if they cannot remember the crime and the second whether justice must be pursued even if the relationship between the victim and murder is more complex than it seems.

The third series focuses on the disappearance of Hayley Reid on New Year’s Eve 1999 and unlike the first two series is perhaps more atypical in its discussion of crime and justice, though there is profound commentary on the presumption of guilt by people online. It depicts also on how the inability of online commentators too often do not realise the real-world implications of their actions.

We reached out to the show’s creator and writer Chris Lang to ask about the inspirations behind the series and the shows’ subsequent success here’s what he said: There is nothing particularly original about the concept of Unforgotten. At its heart, it’s just a cold case cop show. I guess it’s how it’s done that makes it different. I had grown tired of watching investigative dramas with linear structures that went from suspect A, to B, to C etc. I wanted to take the audience on a journey with characters who were there on page one and who were still there on page 360. And I wanted to do this because it gave me and the audience time to properly understand those characters. Over six episodes we get a window on to their lives; their friends, their families, their work, we get to see their loves, their hates, we get to see all their flaws and weaknesses and (in most instances!) we get to think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. So we empathise with our suspects, and I think that is quite unusual in a cop show. Similarly, the story of the victim is given real prominence. Very often the victim in investigative drama is just a device to precipitate story. In Unforgotten, the victim is a person, again, with strengths and weaknesses, that allow us to identify with them. 

Mirroring this, the coppers, in Cassie and Sunny, are also very ordinary. Again, I wanted to move away from the received idea of a TV cop who always comes with baggage. My experience of working with real coppers, is that they are (of course) no different to us. This has been hailed as being incredibly original, but to me it was just writing two people who felt real – extraordinary in their ordinariness. 

But whatever the secret of Unforgotten’s success, it is a rare privilege to be able to write such long character arcs (we are about to start shooting series four) for my heroes and follow their lives for so many years (and it does feel like I follow them, as I watch their lives unfold in front of me on the page). It has an incredibly loyal audience, and a very passionate one – pretty much every day I receive tweets from fans of the show from around the world (the show is on Netflix, and also on channels like PBS in the states and ABC in Australia) telling me it spoke to them in some way. 

And that is everything a writer could ever dream of. To write something that connects with people, that moves them, that provokes them, that maybe even changes the way they see the world a little. That, for me, is the key measure of its success. Chris Lang – Writer and Creator

Unforgotten is a stunning drama that deserves recognition in this list not simply for being a thrilling and engaging drama that uses its all-star cast to produce three captivating and engaging stories that question our very notions of truth and justice. The mix of these stories and the strong central performances of Walker and Bhaskar ensure that Unforgotten will never be forgotten.

18) Jack Thorne’s KIRI/National Treasure (2016, 2018, Channel 4) This is cheating slightly but I had to include these two dramas from Jack Thorne. It felt right to include them together. National Treasure starred Robbie Coltrane as Paul Finchley, a much-loved, ageing comedian finds his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. Worryingly relevant, the four-parter left the viewer questioning who Paul really was. With standout performances from Julie Walters as the devoted wife who refused to believe the accusation and didn’t want to see her husband’s career tarnished by such an allegation alongside Andrea Riseborough as his troubled daughter Dee. Writer Jack Thorne’s script was faultless. As an audience, you never really sure whether what you were seeing was a true representation. Had we been conditioned to believe the accuser and not the accused? Could this gentle entertainer really be capable of an act so horrific? In the aftermath of the Saville scandal, National Treasure never felt like it was preaching to its audience but rather that it was a drama telling a compelling and important story with performances from actors at the peak of their profession.

When compiling this list I knew I’d need to include National Treasure and KIRI but I wanted to know more from Jack Thorne about the inspirations behind the script. He very kindly sent this over.

National Treasure was in some ways based on a single image. I won’t say who – but I saw a celebrity entering court on these charges and I was fascinated by those on either side of him, his family. George Faber brought me the idea of doing something about historic sex crimes, and it felt like the family was the way in, a means by which to analyse and investigate guilt of self-deception. Of what it feels like to live life through compromise. And I was encouraged to write it without putting the brakes on, and so I went hard at it, I’d always been afraid of being too theatrical in my scripts, but Marc Munden and The Forge told me to go for it, so there were a lot of long scenes, a lot of silence, a lot of studying people rather than filling things full of plot. And then we got the most unbelievable cast for it, which was incredibly lucky. Jack Thorne.

KIRI which aired in early 2018, began as the story of devoted social worker Miriam who arranges an unsupervised visit for young Kiri with her birth grandfather before her foster family officially adopts her. During this visit, Kiri goes missing and is subsequently found murdered. The series uses its four episodes to look at all the people who were supposed to care for Kiri. Her foster family, who were on the verge of adopting her, her birth family and Miriam the loving social worker. Which of these people is to blame for her death. Sarah Lancashire gives an incredibly moving performance as Miriam, a woman who is thrust into the spotlight and harassed by the press for not doing enough to keep Kiri safe.  Steven Mackintosh and Lia Williams as Kiri’s soon to be adoptive family are utterly believable as grieving parents who may have something to hide. In an age where we are said to be gorging on long-form television, both KIRI and National Treasure prove that if the script is right, a story told in four-parts can be just as compelling and character-driven as something that will likely leave you with bed soars.

KIRI was a piece about my Mum, for me. She’d spent most of her life as a carer, for adults with learning difficulties, daycare and residential care and so those she worked with became part of our lives, when she doing residential we actually spent Christmas Day at her place. When she retired she did so on £4.60 an hour. She was amazing at her job, the idea that this wage was appropriate – well…. But the other thing about my Mum is she’s incredibly strong-willed, she follows her own instincts and having spent a bit of time teaching when I graduated, I was aware that was incredibly difficult in this day and age. I mean, taking a kid on a school trip produces a mountain of forms. We’d got talking at the Forge about Baby P and immediately it made sense to me this was a way of exploring something that mattered – who looks after our vulnerable children – whilst also investigating the end of the instinctual professional. Then, through our research, inter-racial adoption came up and that was an idea I became fascinated by, I got Rachel De-lahay involved, and we took it from there. Jack Thorne – Writer.

17) This Country (2017, BBC3) This mockumentary sitcom about rural British life, created by siblings Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, quietly arrived on BBC Three in 2017. Two series and a special later (with a third series set to air in early 2020) and the unique, endlessly quotable comedy has gained a loyal fanbase.

In addition to creating This Country, the Coopers star as cousins and best mates Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe, who live in the sort of slow-moving Cotswolds village where young people are frequently bored out of their minds, and buses to the outside world are few and far between. Kurtan occupies himself by obsessing over pointless tasks, such as tracking down a boy from school whom Kerry claims he has made up, and at one point there’s an entire episode devoted to the two of them squabbling over shelves in the oven.

This Country has built a world that perfectly captures the idiosyncrasies of life in the English countryside – from scarecrow festivals and steam fairs to the eccentric but entirely believable characters that populate the village, including the meek local vicar (Paul Chahidi), scary amateur tattoo artist Big Mandy (Ashley McGuire) and Kerry’s braggart dad, played by the Coopers’ real-life father. But you certainly don’t need to have grown up in the countryside to appreciate the show, because there’s still lots to enjoy if you didn’t. Following series 1, This Country won a well-deserved BAFTA for Best Scripted Comedy and Daisy May Cooper also received an award for her hilarious performance as the one-of-a-kind Kerry. Written by Sophie Davies.

16) Him & Her (2010, BBC3) Some of the best British comedies have a feeling of claustrophobia about them. They are the ones that trap their characters in a situation. Whether it be the confines of a journey to work in Peter Kay’s Car Share, the bunkers of war in the final series of Blackadder, or, in the case of Him & Her a flat.

Steve (Russell Tovey) and Becky (Sarah Solemani) a young couple who love nothing more than lazing in bed, watching Morse and having sex. Their life would be pretty perfect if weren’t for all their ‘friends’ who congregate at their flat at all time.

There’s Becky’s narcissistic sister Laura (Kerry Howard), her boyfriend Paul (Ricky Champ) her friend Shelly (Camille Coduri) and oddball neighbour Dan (Joe Wilkinson) All of the ‘action’ as it were takes place in Becky and  Steve’s flat. It wasn’t until the final series, which was set entirely at Laura and Paul’s wedding that we saw the characters in a new setting.

Like The Royle Family before it, the scripts from Stefan Golaszewski take comedy from the characters and the things they say rather than the situations they find themselves in. Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani ground the series and the performances from Howard. Wilkinson and Champ have you laughing one second and pressing your teeth together the next. The final series, set at the wedding of Laura and Paul is an utter masterpiece and was the perfect way to say goodbye to characters we’d become really fond of. Though the characters can be crude, its a show will real heart and affection for its characters and their world. PS: It’s not the only show from writer Stefan Golaszewski to appear on this list.

15) Borgen (2010, BBC4) How on earth could the Danish broadcaster DR make political intrigue anywhere near as compelling as The Killing? In 2012 it sounded like a near-impossible task, but as we should know by now, never underestimate Scandi TV. Borgen gave us a charismatic leader with real-life struggles and a fascinating cast of strong and distinctive supporting characters.

Borgen’s female characters were balancing life and work usually much more successfully than Sara Lund. Sidse Babett Knudsen played Birgitte Nyborg with a winning combination of warmth and steely resolve as the embattled leader of the Moderate Party. We watched her meteoric and unexpected rise to the top job of Prime Minister and got a warts-and-all look at all that happens behind the scenes in government. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen played Katrine Fønsmark, an ambitious and determined TV news anchor whose character deepens and develops through the series. Everyone here, female or male, are nuanced, multi-dimensional and human, with all their tenacity, ability and flaws. Pilou Asbæk as Kasper Juul was especially riveting as he revealed hidden painful depths during the series, and thanks to his portrayal we warmed to this sleazy spin-doctor.

Borgen was also a crash-course in coalition politics, handy for British viewers as the UK was grappling with a whole new political world at the time, with the Tory-LibDem coalition. The similarities were striking with the Borgen stories ripped straight from the headlines of the day (including immigration, environmentalism, gender politics, terrorism and mental health), and the insight into power-sharing and game-playing reassuring for British viewers. If Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg could strive to do her best, then maybe politicians weren’t all totally untrustworthy.

Borgen was thoroughly engrossing, intelligent TV asking important questions about power and success. Can you ever get what you want and not lose sight of yourself? Written by Sarah Kennedy.

14) 24 Hours in Police Custody (2014, Channel 4) One of the criteria when compiling this list was ‘impact’. I chose to define as a show that has had a big cultural impact like Game of Thrones but I also defined impact as any shows that changed their genre. The list has already featured two shows that have used the fixed-rig style of documentary making. Rather than having a camera crew in the room with those taking part, the cameras are placed in a location and capture what goes on. In this case, placing them in police interview rooms of the Luton and Bedfordshire Police. 24 Hours in Police in Custody still feels somewhat under the radar, but it has quickly established itself as a must-watch.

In an era where true-crime stories can often be far more exciting than a scripted hour of television, the series has actually turned me off crime drama. The fact that everything we see is in 24 Police Custody is real makes it even more compelling. The police here aren’t maverick cops that turn their desks over in fits of anger when the cases aren’t going their way, these are real working men and women who see the darker side of our society on a daily basis.

The series showcases the best and worst of Britain today and manages to shock and surprise with every episode. If you’ve dismissed it as ‘just another documentary following the police’ I urge you to reconsider. It’s a programme that incredible access to police, criminal and victim and one that doesn’t shy away from the heinous acts seemingly ordinary people are capable of.

13) Three Girls (2017, BBC1) This three-parter is gritty, real and often difficult to watch. It’s the story of the Rochdale sex abuse scandal which shocked and appalled when it broke in 2012. The ‘Three Girs’ of the title portrayed by Molly Windsor, Ria Zmitrowicz and Liv Hill are subjected the worse kind of abuse at the hands of men they trust. Isolated from their families and let down by the systems designed to help them the girls are lost.

It’s a drama that will make you properly angry. In a strange way, it was the attitude of police and subsequently the social workers that angered me the most. Of course, the men were heinous monsters, but the police and social work teams are there to be the girls’ saviours and they were dismissive, unhelpful and downright useless in the times the girls were quite clearly in serious danger. You always imagine that we have nets to catch the vulnerable when these awful things happen but Nicole Taylor’s script doesn’t paint these people as angels but shows the reality of people too focused on their work to see what was actually in front of them.

We reached out to writer Nicole Taylor to find out more about the challenges of bringing the story to the screen.

At first, I was resistant to be writing about what had gone on in Rochdale, telling myself it wasn’t a suitable subject for drama, until I realised that in coming to that conclusion what I was really doing was what everyone else had done – turning away, attempting to brush what had happened under the carpet. 

I didn’t write a thing until I’d spent as much time as I could trying to understand what had happened from a multitude of perspectives. That took years. 

The reception took us all by complete surprise. We were prepared for criticism. We weren’t remotely prepared for praise or the level of engagement that the series got. I was amazed by that and still am. Three Girls prefigured Brexit. By the time it was broadcast it seemed such a mirror for the moment we were living through. Nicole Taylor – Writer.

The performances from the young cast at the centre are achingly brilliant. They’ll make you cry and curse that this was allowed to happen to them. It’s brutal but I’ve always believed that the best television dramas are the ones that stick with you I’ve thought a lot about Three Girls since it finished. Whilst I appreciate the subject matter is a hard one to tackle, I urge everyone to watch this and just celebrate the great and good that the BBC do.

12) The Killing (2011, BBC4) The Killing shouldn’t need an introduction to even casual TV fans. This was the daddy of Danish crime drama which kick-started a new genre: Nordic Noir. It started an obsession, igniting so many careers, turning Danish actors into household names worldwide, and finding a new fanatical market for a high-quality knitwear icon. It was a daunting 20 part series, each episode an hour of unremittingly dark terrors, grounded in perfect realism. Like tectonic plates, it was enormous, devastating and moved at its own unhurried pace. It quickly became known for its plotting and pace which helped us really get to know each character in emotional depth never afforded elsewhere. In previous detective dramas, Nana Birk Larsen’s family would have been little more than a 2D sketch of ‘the grieving mother’ or ‘the angry father’. We got to know them in such a way that we couldn’t turn away from their anguish. Their emotions were unrelenting, painful and true. The repercussions from the murder rippled outwards to be delicately interwoven in unexpected layers of public life; the police, the parents and the politicians were all an essential part of the story. This show was engrossing from the first episode and didn’t shy away from complexity. A subtitled drama wasn’t off-putting at all to the BBC4 audience; if anything it made people concentrate all the harder. The complicated plot had a huge cast to remember, various sneaky red herrings and heart-stopping cliffhangers that would soon become the calling card for high-quality Scandi drama. 

Unlike the formidable Jane Tennison before her, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) was unashamedly asexual. She’s just here to do her job, and do it to the best of her ability, however, complicated her private life is. In the first episode, we see her set aside her domestic plans, scupper her relationship with her fiance and widen the gulf between her and her son because her job is the most important thing in the world. She’d be a terrible friend but the viewers fell for her all the same. The series was no advert for the Danish Tourist Board. This was the Copenhagen of the inner city, plain dull streets, warehouse interiors and badly lit offices. Who would have guessed that tourists wanted to see the seedy side of Scandinavia? Visit Copenhagen now proudly offers Nordic Noir tours, as does Malmo in Sweden, thanks to the success of The Bridge.

The impact of the first series of The Killing cannot be overstated. It ignited a new interest, and borderline obsession, with foreign drama, making it accessible and vital in UK culture. It inspired wild speculation and water-cooler moments as Saturday night became the night for staying in, theorising wildly about the identity of the killer on social media. This series was the daddy, the godfather and the OG; not just a runaway success in Europe, but sold to 120 countries worldwide. Without it we wouldn’t have such a wealth of shows easily available to British audiences today including The Bridge, Trapped, Borgen, Spiral, The Legacy, Gomorrah and Braquo, to name a few. Thanks to these imports, home-grown crime drama has significantly increased in quality and complexity – I’m thinking of Hinterland, Unforgotten, Marcella, Dublin Murders, Broadchurch, The Fall and Happy Valley. All have links back to the success of The Killing which proved to producers worldwide there was a loyal UK audience with an appetite for noir ready to step up and enjoy complicated drama. Going out on a Saturday night? You must be kidding! Written by Sarah Kennedy.

11) Inside No.9 (2014, BBC2) From the, let’s say, perverse, minds that gave us The League Of Gentlemen and Psychoville came a horror anthology as shocking as it was surprising. Reece Sheersmith and Steve Pemberton dreamt up the surreal, the creepy, the mad and everything else on the bonkers spectrum.

By its very nature, there will be episodes that are more to your taste than others. its range of tone and subjects won’t translate to everyone at all times, but if you don’t take to one episode it’s likely you’ll fall in love with the next. When it excels it’s one of the best things committed to the small screen. The variation and depth of material is to be respected.

The silent episode, only the second episode of the first series, A Quiet Night In was the first hint that we had something special but the tone always shifts. Take The 12 Days of Christine which is genuinely heartbreaking. Or Zanzibar which is a hotel based farce spoken entirely in spoof Shakespearian. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling a man becomes obsessed with a stray shoe. There’s plenty more where that came from.

2018’s live Halloween special could have been the moment Inside No.9 ate itself but they mastered every detail to perfection and so high was the concept they got viewers switching off in droves. That’s art that is.

The new decade will usher in the fifth series and as usual, we have no idea what to expect other than the number nine being involved. Who knows, maybe even that’s not guaranteed. Written by Michael Lee.

So there you have it numbers 20-11 of my Top 50 shows of the Decade. Do you agree? How many have you seen?

Thank you to all of my team who have written as part of this list: Deborah ShrewsburyJacksonMatt DonnellyMaurice WalkerMichael LeeSophie DaviesSarah HughesSarah KennedyStephen Patterson, & Will Barber-Taylor  & the logo and artwork design from eastendersweek 

Numbers 10 – 1 are coming soon.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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