11 Hit TV Series No One Saw Coming

11 Hit TV Series No One Saw Coming

People like Wednesday, it seems. The series, from Smallville masterminds Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (with a bit of help from executive producer Tim Burton, who directs several episodes) has been a massive, record-breaking hit for Netflix. No joke: Stranger Things 4 once held the crown for first-week hours viewed with an astonishing 335 million. Wednesday came in 341.2. Who saw that coming?

There was never any reason to believe that the show wouldn’t be at least a modest success. Though it’s been some time since he’s had the kind of blockbuster movie success of his earlier days, Burton’s name still commands respect and carries instant brand association. Plus, The Addams Family is never far from pop culture consciousness, with a couple of animated films each doing very respectable business in 2019 and 2021. Even without a direct connection, this show harkens most closely to the beloved Barry Sonnenfeld movies of the 1990s, even casting Christina Ricci in a supporting role — but those movies are around 30 years old. The early reviews for Wednesday were good, but not exclusively so…all of that adding up to the sense that the show might do well, but I’d never have guessed that it would do all-time great streaming business. (We can probably credit TikTok for a lot of it.)

Wednesday’s monster success (no pun intended) is the kind of rare event that keeps television executives on their toes — the fact that we can all still be surprised by the success of a show means that they haven’t figured out the secret formula just yet, which means they’ll have to keep trying to make new and (hopefully) interesting things. Here are 11 other inexplicable hits from recent decades.

1899 (2022 – )

Netflix’s current second most popular show, give or take, is 1899, a completely obtuse German period piece immigrant sci-fi drama filmed in 11 different languages (avoid the all-English dubbed version at all cost) and set on a trans-Atlantic steamship rife with whispered threats, significant glances, and inexplicable happenings. None of which is to say the show is bad: it’s gloriously weird, but hardly inviting, taking its sweet time before allowing anything to make even a tiny bit of sense. Any synopsis is rather beside the point, but the show brings a large international ensemble together and places them on an ill-fated, Titanic-esque steamer headed from London to New York. Things generally go downhill from there.

The popularity of the show serves as a pretty solid counter-narrative to the notion that viewers no longer have attention spans. Some of 1899‘s success rests with the popularity of its creator’s predecessor series, Dark, which was itself a sleeper hit, if not quite the blockbuster that 1899 appears to be.

Glee (2009 — 2015)

Glee was such an omnipresent cultural phenomenon in the early twenty-teens, it’s hard to remember how unlikely its success was. Musicals on television had always been a hard sell (Cop Rock is still infamous for a reason), and a series about show choir seemed to have a target audience of about 100 people (all of whom I was friends with in high school). Yet the instincts of series co-creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan proved correct: at heart it’s a show about feeling like an outcast and finally finding your tribe, which is something everyone can relate to. Or so it would seem: Though its later seasons were marked by conflict and unspeakable tragedy, for a time, Glee was the most popular show on the planet in terms of brand awareness and revenue generated, launching dozens of hit singles in the form of the casts countless cover songs and selling out a massive touring live show (or so claimed Murphy in a recent podcast interview, which is really worth a listen if you ever called yourself a Gleek.)

Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story (2022)

Ryan Murphy’s justifiably controversial docudrama is currently Netflix’s second highest-viewed show in English ever. Writer/showrunner Murphy is responsible for several popular shows (the aforementioned Glee, American Horror/Crime Story, etc.), so it’s not entirely surprising that the show is a success, but I’m not sure that anyone could have predicted that the awkwardly titled serial killer story would be such a towering success for Netflix. Though it makes some efforts to tease out the social inequalities that Dahmer was able to exploit, Ryan’s heightened style and fascination with the killer can’t help but exploitative. Yet those debates seem to have helped, rather than hindered the show.

Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon (2011 – )

More than a decade later, it sounds ridiculous to suggest that the success of Game of Thrones might have been a surprise — the show became not just a money-maker for HBO, but a pop culture phenomenon; even the poorly received finale was on everyone’s minds, both before and after. HBO was clearly banking on Lord of the Rings-style crossover appeal, so there was a bit of precedent, but the series on which it was based remains a dense bit of door-stopper fantasy, each book running close to (or a bit over) a thousand pages.Author George R.R. Martin was justifiably well known among fantasy fans, but these weren’t the kind of books that people were discussing around the office water cooler.

And yet! The show started strong, if not spectacularly, but grew into a viewership powerhouse over the course of its first season, and held steady for most of its run. Even after that (generally) maligned finale, the spin-off House of the Dragon blew away the premiere of its predecessor in terms of numbers, doing business that puts it in line with that earlier shows peak — probably not a huge surprise, but the discourse around Game of Thrones had been all about its disappointing ending, so the spin-off wasn’t nearly a sure thing. It even seems to be outperforming Prime Video’s super pricey Lord of the Rings series, at least in terms of buzz.

Tulsa King (2022 – )

I will be honest and admit that I hadn’t even heard of Tulsa King before learning that the series, from Yellowstone co-creator Taylor Sheridan and Boardwalk Empire’s Terrence Winter, debuted as the number one new show of 2022, beating out even House of the Dragon. Only four episodes in, it’s already been deemed a massive hit and renewed for a second season. The Sylvester Stallone-led Mafia drama finds a mob boss looking to set up shop in the titular Tulsa, Oklahoma, which he finds a bit sleepier than his native New Jersey.

The White Lotus (2021 – )

Writer/director/actor (and Amazing Race/Survivor all-star, oddly enough) Mike White has been responsible for a bunch of great TV, but mostly shows that have been more critically acclaimed than widely viewed (HBO’s Enlightened being a perfect example). That’s changed with The White Lotus, a dark satire that’s been a surprising breakout hit for HBO and HBO Max. On the one hand, American viewers love capitalism and we like to imagine ourselves as among the wealthy and elite — a strike against the deeply cynical show. But! On the other hand, we still enjoy seeing rich people taken down a peg. Whatever the reason, what might have been another cult-favourite from White has been been a buzzy hit that’s already been renewed for a third season.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018 – 2020)

A stylish and often very darkly funny teen soap opera, this Sabrina took a very different spin on the character than did the ‘90s sitcom (and certainly the wholesome classic comics). While not quite a monster hit at Netflix, the show did very well among viewers and critics — the streamer releases more viewership data now than it did a couple of years ago, but data indicates that the show was one of Netflix’s most popular binge watches, and paired very well with Riverdale, the kinda/sorta companion series imported from the CW. Though the series was cancelled after four short seasons (or two longer ones, depending on how you’re counting), it seems to be the case that pandemic-related delays and struggles had more to do with the abrupt ending than anything related to ratings.

Squid Game (2021 – )

Why wouldn’t a South Korean survival drama/social satire do well with international audiences? Americans are known, of course, for their love of subtitled foreign television shows with strong anti-capitalist themes. Cough cough.

The global popularity of K-Drama (and K-Pop) has been building for a decade or so, but still somewhat niche in North America — a genre that appealed more to teens and college kids than to their parents. Squid Game blew those barriers to shreds, drawing broad audiences and opening the door for a number of other imports (from Korea and elsewhere) that have broadened Netflix’s scope dramatically.

Stranger Things (2016 – )

Who the hell are the Duffer Brothers? Before Netflix threw money at them for Stranger Things, the twins had a well-regarded, but little seen indy horror movie under their belts, as well as having written several episodes of Wayward Pines, a two-season Fox series that you might have heard of but probably didn’t watch. The cast was made up almost entirely of unknowns or supporting players, with only Winona Ryder to supply anything resembling star power. Had Stranger Things been a failure, this might have seemed like yet another case of relatively inexperienced white guys getting an unreasonable amount of leeway in the entertainment industry…but it’s hard to argue with the results. Each season of the show has topped Netflix’s viewership charts; the cast have become stars, Dungeons & Dragons became cool again, and David Harbour became the sex symbol we didn’t know we so desperately needed.

Vikings (2013 – 2020)

Like many “streaming” shows, Vikings’ origins are a bit more complicated — an original production of Canada’s History channel, the series was streamable in the United States before being picked up by Prime Video for its final season, while Netflix is the original network for the spin-off, Valhalla. So, a channel that most Americans have likely never heard of crafted a show about semi-legendary Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok at the start of the age of raiding that began at Lindisfarne raid in 793. Certainly there’s action/dramatic potential in Viking narratives, but there was never any reason to believe that a budget-conscious historical drama would be an international hit — and yet, almost ten years later, the six season series has given way to a successor show entering its second season early next year.

Cobra Kai (2018 – )

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Karate Kid movies. When I heard news of a revival TV series (premiering on “YouTube Red” of all things), I was interested…but without particularly high hopes. Returning leads William Zabka and Ralph Macchio weren’t quite marquee names, and the whole thing sounded like a nostalgia cash-in that would certainly never go beyond a single season. And yet here we are, five seasons (and counting?) later, with the show continuing to be a consistently strong player following its move to Netflix in season three. Shifting the focus from Daniel LaRusso to sometimes-villain Johnny Lawrence, the show has smartly blended nostalgia with teen soap opera and a self-aware sense of humour about the ridiculousness of these ongoing karate wars. It’s a show that 2020s teens can watch while visiting erstwhile ‘80s kids at the home.