Game of Thrones feels like a leap forward in fantasy television. But no television show emerges from a vacuum, and for Game of Thrones to succeed, a number of innovative and brilliant TV shows had to crash and burn, to light its path. Here are 10 TV shows that failed, but helped pave the way for Game of Thrones.
When it comes to shows that featured lots of weirdness, dark and complicated characters, and a sense of creeping foreboding, Twin Peaks always deserves the first mention. David Lynch's bizarre murder mystery about an FBI agent in a small town was a huge hit in its first season, but after the murder was solved, ratings nosedived — thus proving, maybe, that a show needs to keep people hooked with a central questionmark.
Unlike the other shows on this list, this isn't one that actually aired on TV — but this is definitely a show whose failure made Game of Thrones possible. George R.R. Martin spent years pitching a show about people who travel to alternate universes, and apparently even filmed a pilot — but the show never aired. (We asked him about it here.) And if his show had gotten on the air, then Martin never would have fled Hollywood to write his unconventional fantasy epic.
This Sam Raimi-produced show only aired for one season, but it remains influential even if it's not super well known among the public at large. American Gothic followed the evil Sheriff Buck (Gary Cole) as he schemes and corrupts people in a small town. You want to talk about shows featuring nasty people who you hope will suffer a comeuppance, but you can't look away? American Gothic had that in spades. Not to mention crazy plot twists, tons of complicated morally gray characters, and a sense of the supernatural creeping into a realistic world.
Around the same time, this show starring Adrian Pasdar as a scheming business executive who was raised by a television set inside a shipping box aired for one season on Fox. It's kind of hard to believe something this crazy and subversive ever aired on television — but its glorious failure definitely helped carve out a space for Game of Thrones, years later. Like Gothic, this show had an amoral protagonist who does horrible things while we can't look away. But also, it did the thing of being loosely based on real history years before Thrones, because the whole thing is a pastiche of Richard III. Oh, and the incest. Jim Profit was seduced by his stepmother — Fox execs wouldn't let her be his actual mother.
This is one of the shows most often mentioned as a precursor to Thrones, and as one which might have flourished more easily in the current era of premium cable. Carnivale aired on HBO and featured the kind of complex supernatural storytelling, with a confusing mythos, that few audiences were ready for 10 years ago. As Rick Paulas explains in The Awl, this show was so complex and challenging that fans had to analyze every word out of creator Daniel Knauf's mouth and pore over every promo for the show for clues to its light-vs-dark mythos. In a time before HBO was airing both True Blood and Thrones, this show lit a lantern.
Here's another show that it's hard to believe aired on network television. Stephen King produced an American version Lars von Trier's The Kingdom, about a haunted hospital riven by staff politics. King's version begins with a man being hit by a van while jogging, and then being stuck in the hospital, where some horrible demon creature is coming. Apart from the creepy supernatural weirdness this show had in spades, there's also the fact that this is a setting where the parochial scheming and power grabs take center stage, while the supernatural lurks menacingly in the background. Episodes are as likely to be about someone taking credit for someone else's research as the coming of Anubis.
This ambitious HBO Western series was such a clear precursor to Thrones, there's even a mash-up Tumblr. Deadwood was critically acclaimed, but the plug was pulled after only a few seasons. Critics compare the show's treatment of sex workers trying to escape exploitation with Thrones treatment of Ros and other characters. This show may not have been a huge hit for HBO, but it helped pioneer the notion of a sweeping political series, with tons of players and an evolving political landscape, as the town of Deadwood grows out of almost nothing.
This is the show most often mentioned as a precursor to Game of Thrones — HBO's massive historical epic was filmed overseas, had a huge budget, and featured adult themes around a story of dynastic succession. And, from a purely practical standpoint, Rome helped show Thrones what not to do in some areas, according to creator Bruno Heller, who tells EW: "They learned a lot from a business commercial sense, what not to do. Rome was the first show HBO shot out of country with large budget that was period. The mistakes we made are the mistakes Game of Thrones learned from."
We adored this NBC show about an alternate New York where a Biblical struggle for the throne is taking place — but it might have just been too weird and dreamy for network audiences. But in the ranks of shows that explored complicated and brutal political maneuverings alongside religion and the supernatural, Kings has a special place. Plus this show dared to have a gay main character, long before King Renly.
And finally, there are the shows that competed against Game of Thrones, and lost. Camelot was a lavish Arthurian saga, starring Jamie Campbell-Bower as Lancelot, created by Doctor Who scribe Chris Chibnall for the BBC and Starz, which died after just one short season. And The Borgias was another huge-budget historical epic, airing on Showtime, which got axed after three seasons because it was just too expensive. Both shows launched in April 2011, around the same time as Game of Thrones, and if either of them had been a bigger hit, they could have cannibalized the popularity of Thrones — or even taken its crown.
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta.