Decade in Review: Biggest surprise hits
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The 10 most surprising hit films and TV shows of the past decade

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Dec 13, 2019

Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we explore the most unexpected breakout hits of the 2010s.

Some aspects of pop culture are pretty easy to predict. A Star Wars film will make a pretty large amount of money. A movie produced by Judd Apatow will be stacked with great cameos. And if it’s Friday, then Netflix is releasing at least three new seasons of television you'll never have the time to watch.

So that makes the surprises below from the last 10 years even more precious, because these films and TV shows didn't just catch us off guard, they reminded us that when it comes to storytelling, in everything from existential animation to haunting horror, the quest for those unexpected joys keeps great film and television so vibrant.

The Minions (2010)

When introduced in the first Despicable Me film, the bright yellow gibberish-talkers might initially have seemed like side characters. But today, they're in some ways as closely identified with Universal as Mickey Mouse is with Disney, despite being around for a whole lot less time. (SYFY WIRE shares a parent company with Universal Studios, NBCUniversal.)

These yellow, overalls-wearing, gibberish-talking creatures have been featured not only in all three Despicable Me movies, but their own prequel series of films, as well as video games, theme park rides, and over a dozen short films.

They're even celebrated in the post-apocalyptic film Mortal Engines as the "gods" previously worshiped by a now-fallen America — which might not be so far off from the truth.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (2010)

Perhaps the biggest factor in Lauren Faust's fresh take on My Little Pony isn't the fact that it was popular, but rather who it was popular with.

The rise of Bronies — older male fans of an animated series targeted at young girls — was a heated point of discussion during the show's heyday, but many of these enthusiasts seemed to genuinely enjoy the series, which not only depicted the central heroes going on adventures but also coping with their own complicated friendships.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter why people were watching it — Friendship Is Magic was a force of positive energy in a bleak world.

Game of Thrones (2011)

Let’s be clear: A ton of hard work went into the success of this drama, which has come to define HBO at its best and its worst over the past 10 years.

From its early development (including massive reshoots of the pilot) to later seasons, which delivered feature film levels of production every week, the epic fantasy drama was one of the networks’ hardest sells initially but became iconic by the end of its first season. Easing viewers slowly into the complicated politics and rising magic of the kingdom of Westeros, two massive twists — the execution of ostensible series lead Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and the birth of Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) dragons — ensured that we’d never forget this series.

Whoever thought that a show about ice zombies and dragons would end up winning 59 Emmys over its eight-season run? It’s a twist on the level of anything Cersei might come up with. (But with a lot less real bloodshed.)

Rick and Morty (2013)

Like many of pop culture’s most biggest successes, it was the quality of the product that helped Adult Swim's Rick and Morty break out as a mainstream hit.

Beginning as a crude animated riff on Doc Brown and Marty McFly, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland's demented blend of science fiction, comedy, and the occasional meditation on existentialism veers wildly from hilarity to pathos, with complex and tightly written scripts that play with pop culture tropes like a frisky cat on acid.

Sometimes, Rick and Morty attracts attention for the wrong reasons, like when its fanbase loses its grip over Szechuan Sauce or starts harassing the show's female writers.

But while no one might have expected one of TV's most sophisticated series might come from a channel best known for stoner entertainment, watch one episode of Rick and Morty and you'll understand why it's claimed such a hold of its viewers.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

It's easy to forget, over 10 years since the premiere of Iron Man, just how many risks Marvel took, creatively and financially, to become a pop culture monolith. But perhaps one of the biggest was giving noted horror auteur James Gunn $200 million to make a space adventure starring the guy from Parks and Recreation, an anthropomorphic tree, and a talking raccoon — a risk that paid off with one of the MCU's most human and affecting entries, a story about an unconventional group of characters forming an unconventional sort of family. (In space.)

Guardians of the Galaxy was the beginning of Marvel exploring not just intergalactic realms, but the more out-there aspects of its mythology, and discovering that audiences were more than willing to sign up. In retrospect, the success of Guardians shouldn't be so shocking — but did we mention the tree and raccoon?

Stranger Things (2016)

When the Duffer Brothers’ ode to 1980s films and the works of Stephen King debuted on Netflix, it became one of the streaming giant’s first early word-of-mouth successes — "a show about kids fighting unknown evil and Winona Ryder’s the mom" doesn’t necessarily sound like an obvious winner, but the blending of genres, the engaging young cast of future superstars and its small-town charm made the series impossible to resist.

Future seasons have become pretty well-hyped since those early days, but the show has never lost sight of the factors which made it so appealing: It’s hard growing up, and even harder when your friends keep getting sucked into the Upside Down.

Get Out (2017)

Talented horror auteurs come out of nowhere all the time, but Jordan Peele’s directorial debut proved shocking because after all, before then he was best known as one of sketch comedy’s best Obama impersonators, as showcased on his hit series Key & Peele.

But one thing Peele had always included in his work was a keen sense of race issues, as well as a strong understanding of how to work within certain genres, so in retrospect, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Get Out worked so well.

The Jason Blum-produced film wasn’t just a box office hit, but won Peele an Oscar (plus a few nominations) for his funny-but-terrifying tale of a black man whose white girlfriend’s family proves to be a little too intense. It didn’t just give us the gift of the line "I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could" — it launched Peele into a new career path that has already brought us this year’s equally compelling film Us and what will undoubtedly be countless new fascinating stories to come.

The Handmaid's Tale (2017)

The Handmaid’s Tale was a pretty big risk on the part of Hulu, as there had already been one lackluster screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel about a dystopian world where women have lost all agency.

But while production on it began in 2016, its premiere in 2017 shocked us all by how well it expressed emotions that so many American women were feeling at that particular point in history, following the election. The appearances of women in handmaid costumes at political protests, even before the show premiered, were immediate proof that this show had come at exactly the right time, as unexpected as that might have seemed.

Hereditary (2018)

One of the most terrifying films of the decade scared us not because of gore or goblins, but because director Ari Aster created such an intense feeling of dread from the very first minutes that you knew nothing good was going to happen to the Graham family.

A modest box office success, the thriller, starring Toni Collette as a mother whose family faces unspeakable tragedies tied to the presence of a sinister demon, haunts the memories of audiences to this day, especially thanks to Collette's performance — we knew she was good, but we had no idea just how scary she could be.

A Quiet Place (2018)

A horror film that was also one of the decade’s most touching family stories, A Quiet Place took its high concept premise and found both humanity and true terror in it.

Anchored by director John Krasinski and wife/star Emily Blunt, this modestly-budgeted film about a world terrorized by alien creatures who hunt based on sound became one of 2018’s biggest box office successes and proved that the horror genre is, more often than not, where some of film’s most inventive narratives can happen.

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