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We count down the year's best 25 episodes

Shaun Harrison
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1 of 25 Harpo Productions

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25. " The Oprah Winfrey Show Finale,"The Oprah Winfrey ShowAfter 25 years and 4,561 episodes, we figured that the Queen of Daytime would use her final hour on the air to lead a parade of celebrities who would sing her praises and reminisce about all the crazy times on her couch. (But that, as it turns out, was what the second- and third-to-final hours were for.) Instead, the last show was simply O, reading a prepared speech from a bare set that reflected on the many lessons she had learned and that thanked her fans. "This show is the great love of my life," she said through tears. No guests, no surprises, no makeovers (not even one person got a car!) It was simple, nostalgic, and the perfect way to end a legendary chapter.
2 of 25 Liane Hentscher/Fox

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24. "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide,"FringeThe title alone indicated that this episode would be a trip. When Olivia attempted to extricate William Bell's consciousness from hers by taking LSD, the world went topsy-turvy, and the episode switched from live-action to animation. The twisty, Inception-like hour also marked Leonard Nimoy's farewell to the series.
3 of 25 Dana Edelson/NBC

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23. "Melissa McCarthy,"Saturday Night LiveOn the heels of her big Emmy win, we had high hopes for McCarthy's first hosting gig on SNL. She did not disappoint. The Mike and Molly star shimmied her way across the stage for a hilarious dance number with her Bridesmaids buddy Kristen Wiig, made brazen, unwanted sexual advances toward Jason Sudekis as Arlene, a horny office worker, and taste-tested Hidden Valley Ranch dressing in a manner that gave us the dry heaves — first from laughing so hard and then with actual nausea. (Can you Garlic Ranch Blast me now?)
4 of 25 Bravo

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22. "Game Night Gone Wild!,"The Real Housewives of Beverly HillsAll we're saying is that when you mix rich Beverly Hills housewives, booze, Pictionary, and a not-so-lucid Hilton sister, things are bound to get interesting. It started innocently enough, as the ladies headed to Dana's house for game night — but then everyone got wasted, broken-legged Brandi accused Kim of doing crystal meth in the bathroom and Kyle came to her sister's defense by calling Brandi a trashy slut. You stay classy, Beverly Hills.
5 of 25 CBS

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21. "Bad News,"How I Met Your MotherMother had no shortage of shockers in 2011, but none was more surprising or poignant than when Marshall, who was trying to reach his dad to tell him good news, learned from Lily that his dad died from a heart attack. Jason Segel's quick switch from jubilation to inconsolable heartbreak was Emmy-worthy — especially when you know that he did the scene in one take.
6 of 25 Michael Desmond/ABC Archive/Getty Images

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20. "Caught in the Act,"Modern FamilyStraight out of the Three Company's handbook, the Emmy-winning episode built on a misunderstanding that's not exactly novel: Gloria accidentally emailed naked pictures of herself, intended for Jay, to Claire and Phil, who have also just scarred their own kids by being caught in the act. ("Whatever it was, it looked like dad was winning," Luke says of his parents' love-making.)
7 of 25 FX

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19. "To Be, Act 1,"Sons of AnarchySeason 4's penultimate episode is a fascinating battle of wills between the show's female power players. Gemma (Katey Sagal) makes her big move, showing Jax the way to his seat as the head of the SAMCRO motorcycle club, while Jax's girlfriend Tara (Maggie Siff) out-Gemmas Gemma by making plans for she and Jax to leave Charming — and Gemma — forever. "What are you doing?" a stunned Gemma asks. "Everything you taught me," Tara replies. SAMCRO may be a boys' club, but it's the old ladies who keep surprising us.
8 of 25 Michael Desmond/TNT

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18. "Let the Sun Shine In,"Men of a Certain AgeThree 50-something men get colonoscopies, play golf and gripe about life — the perfect recipe for an hour of compelling TV, no? Well, no, but when Joe, Terry and Owen take a road trip to Palm Springs to get their colons checked, the pain of enlightenment isn't just, you know, physical. It will be a long time before we, ahem, fill the void left by this touching series, but it was episodes like this that make us realize we're just thankful that this quirky little show ever made it on the air.
9 of 25 David M. Russell/CBS

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17. "Getting Off,"The Good WifeThis is the episode where Kalinda cries, an event that in and of itself qualifies as earth-shattering in the life of this stoic character. The tears come after Alicia (Julianna Margulies)tells Kalinda that she knows that she slept with her husband. The face-off between Emmy winners Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi is chilling, particularly since it would be their last scene together for a long while. Bonus: Sarah Silverman, in a rare dramatic turn, guest-stars as the owner of a website that facilitates adulterous affairs.
10 of 25 Prashant Gupta/FX

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16. "The Spoil,"JustifiedIt's hard to highlight a single episode of Margo Martindale's Emmy-winning season as Mags Bennett, but her rousing speech in "The Spoil." Martindale's effortless, smooth-as-Mags' homemade moonshine delivery reminds us how smart a villain she is, and how much of a fight she's willing to put up to protect her people's "way of livin' and dyin.'" And while Mags' icy mean streak didn't fully come out until the following episode, her actions in this hour put us on serious red alert.
11 of 25 Lewis Jacobs/NBC

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15. "Remedial Chaos Theory,"CommunityNever afraid of taking risks, this remarkable Season 3 episode of Community moves the action from Greendale's study room to game night at Troy and Abed's new apartment, where one decision — which character retrieves the pizza from the delivery guy — creates seven alternate timelines. While each timeline features recurring gags — Jeff hitting his head on the ceiling fan, Pierce bragging about hooking up with Eartha Kitt in an airplane bathroom, Britta singing "Roxanne" — it's the subtle differences in the characters' interactions from timeline to timeline that exquisitely display why this group of friends makes sense together. Most importantly, it emphasizes how important the group is to Jeff, even though he is no longer the sole person holding it together. Now if only we could see an entire episode that takes place with Evil Abed in the "darkest timeline"!
12 of 25 Mike Yarish/Fox

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14. "Asian F,"GleeSay what you will about the current season of Glee — Why did Quinn go psycho? Where did Mr. Schue disappear to? Can Sue be saved? — there's no denying that "Asian F" deserves a standing O for being a brilliant showcase for the lesser-seen characters, all of whom were trying to overcome longstanding struggles. Mercedes channeled her inner J. Hud as she decided to step into her own spotlight, Mike unleashed his pent-up angst for his parents to West Side Story's perfect pressure-cooker number "Cool," and Emma suffered an OCD relapse when forced to deal with her own destructive, "ginger-supremacist" parents. If nothing else, the hour was a potent reminder that Glee is capable of delivering the heartbreaking goods.
13 of 25 Adrian Rogers/BBC

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13. "The Doctor's Wife,"Doctor WhoIt takes fantasy/horror/sci-fi author Neil Gaiman to pen an episode that is preposterous to describe, yet heartbreaking in that signature Doctor Who way. Through a series of convoluted and nefarious events, his time machine, aka the TARDIS, shuts down and its matrix disappears, only to be incarnated in a daffy lady named Idris. The Doctor always did call the TARDIS "old girl," right? He and the TARDIS-possessed woman reminisce, banter, flirt and even kiss, and by episode's end, we've bought into their longtime, intimate relationship. Too bad the TARDIS can't remain in that body or ever have a voice again, but the affection we feel for that big blue police box has doubled.
14 of 25 NBC

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12. "Goodbye, Michael,"The Office"Hey, will you guys let me know if this ever airs?" And with that, Michael Scott took off his microphone, mouthed a final, silent "that's what she said" and left Scranton and Dunder Mifflin in his rearview mirror as he boarded a flight headed for Colorado and a lifetime of happiness with his "soupsnake" Holly. Much like the humor of The Office, the episode was understated and pitch-perfect. He played paintball with Dwight in the parking lot and shared an anti-goodbye goodbye with Jim. For die-hard fans, it's still hard to accept that "Prison Mike" is never coming back (except maybe for the series finale -- fingers crossed!), but at least he received a worthy send-off and a Best Boss award he didn't have to buy for himself.
15 of 25 Milk Publicity/PBS

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11. "Episode One," Downton AbbeyThe miniseries drops viewers among the surprisingly swiftly paced world of the Earl of Grantham, his American wife, their three daughters (note: no male heir!), his blustering, blistering mother and their equally complicated downstairs staff, an hour so artfully written, paced and performed that we've immediately taken sides: First up: We've already sent out a dinner invitation to the Dowager Countess (the treasure Maggie Smith), we want nothing but happiness for neglected younger sisters Edith and Sybil, and we empathize with cousin Matthew Crawley, whose entrance into this elegant world coincides with our own. On the other hand, Lady Grantham's sourpuss maid O'Brien better not interfere with Bates and Anna's budding romance, Lady Mary could use a little less entitlement, and Thomas is just pure evil. In an era of dwindling daytime soaps, Downton's first episode is instantly and thoroughly addictive, enough so that we wanted to make this costume drama part of our daily "stories."
16 of 25 Ali Goldstein/NBC

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10. "Queen of Jordan,"30 Rock How do you fill the void left by larger-than-life personality Tracy Jordan? With wine-throwing, weave-pulling and a pointless cocktail party. In other words, it's a job for Real Housewives! Or at least a Real Housewives spoof! Scene-stealer Sherri Shepherd rose to the occasion as Tracy's wife Angie, who is just as off-the-wall and out of touch with reality as her crazy hubby. Although shot in spot-on Housewives style, the episode still featured 30 Rock's classic absurdist comedy (the gay hairdresser thinks Jack is gay when he says he played both ways on the college football team, Jenna forces her own intervention to get attention and is shipped off to Minnesota), but added a little something special. We would call this one of the comedy's best episodes, but legal said we can't use "best."
17 of 25 Gene Page/AMC

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9. "Pretty Much Dead Already,"The Walking DeadIn the midseason finale of its sophomore season, this show somehow managed to revive -- or reanimate, if you will -- the humanity that's at the core of compelling zombie dramas. In the episode's final minutes, Farmer Herschel is devastated to witness his hoarded horde of zombies (that he alone views as "sick" humans) get riddled with bullets before his eyes. The tragic capper, however, is when a zombiefied Sophia, the missing little girl they've all been searching for, stumbles out, and it falls on Rick to pull the trigger with her mother sobbing nearby.
18 of 25 Bob Mahoney/ The CW

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8. "The Sun Also Rises,"The Vampire DiariesThe second season's penultimate episode was filled with tears, culminating in Klaus turning Aunt Jenna into a vampire before ultimately killing her. Worse, watching Elena lose her only semblance of a parent and knowing she was responsible for the death was wrenching. We've felt terror, hysteria, and laughed pretty darn hard while watching this show; this was the first time we sobbed.
19 of 25 Showtime

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7. "The Weekend,"HomelandWhat begins as a weekend getaway between new lovers ends with the fiery confrontation that's been brewing since the pilot. Although Carrie fully gives in to her lust for Brody, the Marine sniper she suspects is plotting a terrorist attack, she can't shake her nagging suspicions. So when she accidentally gives away details that suggest she's been watching Brody via surveillance, Carrie spills her entire theory. Cue the most excellent interrogation scene ever staged at a cabin in the woods. Brody convincingly answers enough of Carrie's questions to sway her, but when she begs his forgiveness for not trusting him, his unflinching "F--- you, Carrie," sets her in a tailspin the culminates in the show's also excellent season finale. (Oh, and he was lying.)
20 of 25 HBO

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6. "Baelor,"Game of ThronesA pivotal event in this episode is so shockingly audacious that even now we'd like to issue a spoiler alert lest readers miss out on one of television's biggest surprises. HBO's epic fantasy series may have been hard to grasp at first -- a huge cast, foreign-sounding names, a feudal-type setting and baffling political intrigues -- but eventually we got to know the central characters, especially hero, patriarch and all-around upstanding fellow Ned Stark, played by Lord of the Rings' Sean Bean. We rooted for the morally high-minded right-hand man of the king, and so viewers could only watch (and rewind their DVRs) in disbelief as Ned was summarily beheaded in an act of betrayal -- with his two young daughters watching -- in a public square. What? Killing off someone who was supposedly the protagonist and emotional center of the show did not compute -- and drove home the fact that no one, not even the passive viewers, are untouched by the fantastical cruelty of this world conceived by author George R.R. Martin.
21 of 25 The CW

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5. "Finale,"SmallvilleIt took 10 years for Clark Kent to become Superman, but the series finale soared as the Man of Steel (in his super suit at long last!) took flight. Like a proud parent, our hearts swelled as we watched Clark realize his full potential after a decade's worth of trials, and fittingly, both of his fathers (Jor-El and an apparition of Jonathan Kent) presented him with the cape before he took off to save the world once more.
22 of 25 HBO

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4. "Palestinian Chicken,"Curb Your EnthusiasmHis appetite or his religion? His sex life or his religion? For anyone who knows Larry David, it's pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty clear which he'll choose, but that doesn't make this Season 8 episode any less entertaining to watch (even if it does make you feel a little guilty for laughing so hard). At issue: Larry's new favorite restaurant, Al Abbas, is a chicken place run by Palestinians where the walls are covered with anti-Israel posters and the hot Palestinian manager, Shara, wants Larry to, um, occupy her, like she says Israel did her country -- what to do? Throw in Larry's rampage against the acronym "LOL" and you've got the perfect portrait of comedy's best social assassin.
23 of 25 AMC

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3. "Face Off,"Breaking BadBreaking Bad's season's worth of twists and tension culminated in a pulsating, relentless and jaw-dropping finale that will go down as one of TV's best. For one, there's theindelible, gross and awesome image of Gus' half-disfigured face after he emerged ostensibly unharmed from a bomb blast. But the ultimate "holy crap!" came in the final, game-changing seconds when we learn that Walt had poisoned Brock -- a reveal that tested the limits of our sympathy for him and showed that he had no ethical limits anymore. Walt is indeed thewho knocks.
24 of 25 NBC

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2. "Flu Season,"Parks and RecreationDementia! Vomiting! Pooping! In the hands of lesser folks, hitting a cast of sitcom characters with the flu could be a prescription for some really easy, lame, tired jokes. In the hands of TV's best comedy Parks and Recreation, it's an inspired choice. What would happen if Chris' perfected human health wascompromised? Can Leslie rally when she has a speech to give butthe floor and the wall have switched ? In sickness and in health, we love this show.
25 of 25 NBC

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1. "Always,"Friday Night LightsAs Friday Night Lights stepped into TV's white light, we held our collective breath, tears at the ready. Would we be able to say goodbye to Dillon with just one box of tissue? In the end, the once-embattled Lions overcame, winning State, and Coach Taylor, who we want to be when we grow up, finally decided that it was, in fact, Tami's turn to pursue her dreams in Philadelphia. Still, when the sun set for the final time in Dillon — and we were crying, "No, don't go!" -- Tim and Billy reminded us that it would be Texas forever for all who had watched FNL's five amazing seasons.