No. 8: “Game of Thrones”

If you focused only on the literary side of things, 2011 would have been a fantastic year for George R.R. Martin‘s series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” The epic fantasy saga began in 1996, with Martin — a veteran of both fiction and television writing — penning thousand-page tomes that led some fans to herald him as the American Tolkien. Set on the fictional continent of Westeros, Martin’s series mixed in a little magic with a lot of good old-fashioned medieval warfare and palace intrigue. After a long wait, the fifth book in the series, “A Dance With Dragons,” was released in July, selling nearly 300,000 copies on its first day.

But 2011 ended up being the year a new audience found its way into Martin’s fictional world, as HBO premiered the drama “Game of Thrones,” named after the first book in the series. Following in the hallowed Sunday-night footsteps of “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” and “The Wire,” “Thrones” was a commercial and critical success. HBO ordered a second season after only one episode had aired, and the number of viewers increased during the season, eventually totaling 8 million.

Accolades, surprises
At the 2011 Emmys, “Thrones” was nominated for 13 awards, with Peter Dinklage taking home Best Supporting Actor in a Drama for his work as wisecracking fan favorite Tyrion Lannister. One of the most beloved features of the new series was the opening credits, an orchestra-themed journey through Westeros that spawned YouTube covers with more than a million views.

New watchers discovered what fans of the book series had known for years: Martin weaves original characters into myriad story lines and then suddenly kills off key people. There was some outrage from TV viewers when a beloved character was axed near the end of the season, but those familiar with the series just laughed — the only thing Martin seems to enjoy more than creating characters that readers love is getting rid of them.

Inside joke, inside praise
Perhaps one of the greatest tributes a television show can receive is to be acknowledged in another one only a few months after it hits the air. On an October episode of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” a character suggested that “Game of Thrones” was possibly being canceled. An incredulous Ben Wyatt, played by Adam Scott, replied, “They would never cancel ‘Game of Thrones’! It’s a crossover hit; it’s not just for fantasy enthusiasts. They’re telling human stories in a fantasy world.”

The second season premieres on HBO in April.  There is no release date for the sixth book in the series, “The Winds of Winter.”

Chris Wilson is an editor at Yahoo! who has previously been involved in team coverage of World Cup 2010, the royal wedding, and the September 11 Memorial page.