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From Snooki pummeling Angelina, to Jack Shephard's final breath, we count down the year's best 25 episodes

Shaun Harrison
1 of 25 NBC


It would've been easy to be bitter, but Conan O'Brien is too classy for that. After NBC asked O’Brien to start his show a half-hour later and he refused, O’Brien vowed to have fun during his final days on the air. But his Tonight Show tenure culminated with the sincerest of goodbye speeches. "Please do not be cynical," he pleaded to fans. "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen." Then an amazing thing happened: O’Brien strapped on a guitar and played “Free Bird” with Will Ferrell, members of ZZ Top et al. Getting screwed out of a job never looked more fun.
2 of 25 Ed Araquel/The CW


The 200th episode, which delved into Clark's past, present and future, gave us an extended look at Clark’s future. There he was, decked out in Daily Planet apparel and his soon-to-be iconic eyeglasses, confident about saving the world and with Lois Lane by his side. In 10 seasons of Smallville, this is the closest we've ever come to seeing Superman, and it knocked us out.
3 of 25 MTV


Fistfights and drunken debauchery are important components of a typical episode of Jersey Shore, but Snooki and Angelina’s throw-down was different in that it convinced Angelina to move out of the house. So who won the fight? The audience.
4 of 25 Fox


Hear us out, all you "Huddy" haters. After more than six seasons of flirting, House and Cuddy finally kissed – this was no hallucination – and it was a welcome shakeup. The whole love-hate bit was starting to get stale, and the last thing we needed was another overhaul-of-the-team twist.
5 of 25 NBC


This was the first episode that showed us just what this talented ensemble was capable of. The show took all the right shots at action blockbusters, hilariously lampooning the genre with a campus-wide game of paintball. And even though the stunts were big, the episode was also able to focus on small moments: Jeff and Britta finally hooked up! Most importantly, the episode's success freed the show creatively, paving the way for an ambitious Season 2 that featured clever takes on space travel, zombies and stop-motion Christmas classics.
6 of 25 Randy Tepper/Showtime


The Season 5 finale of Dexter paled in comparison to the penultimate episode, in which Dexter pondered a new life with Lumen. The idea of a Dexter who doesn’t kill gave us hope for the complicated, grieving sociopath. Bonus: The second half of the episode — Dexter and Lumen were kidnapped; Liddy and Emily were murdered — was nothing short of a non-stop thriller.
7 of 25 Adam Larkey/ABC


19. "Did You Hear What Happened to Charlotte King?" Private Practice Charlotte’s brutal attack at the top of the episode set the tone for a tense, anxious hour. KaDee Strickland’s Emmy-worthy performance was heartbreaking. There were moments, particularly when fiancée Cooper first saw the extent of her injuries, that it was like we weren't even watching TV anymore.
8 of 25 Starz


RIP, Party Down. This parody and celebration of Guttenberg, who was only too game to send himself up in this Season 2 episode, ranks among the show's best episodes. Under the direction of The Goot, the gang decides to workshop one of Roman's sci-fi screenplays. The actor-caterers showcase some serious skills during the performance — making Roman’s writing all the more raucously horrific.
9 of 25 Ali Goldstein/NBC


Perfection (or "Reaganing") is hard to achieve, but like Jack Donaghy, 30 Rock came close to it in this episode, a welcome return to form after an uneven fourth season. The kooky half-hour featured Frasier (er, Frajer) himself, Kelsey Grammer, assisting Jenna and Kenneth in a long-con Carvel bakery scam and flirty interplay between Jack and Liz. We learned why Tom Jones, Liz's aunt and roller skates are to blame for Liz’s sexual dysfunction and that Jack thinks she's great.
10 of 25 David M. Russell/CBS


Julianna Margulies’ legal drama returned with a vengeance. After months of laying low post-scandal, Alicia found her backbone, satisfaction (thanks to some, um, assistance from Peter) and a new mentor in Derrick Bond. The only thing she didn’t find? Will’s declaration of love via voicemail, which Eli deleted — a perfect way to keep the love triangle thriving. Props to the producers for adding Blake to the cast, a perfect foil for the enigmatic Kalinda (or should we say Leila?)
11 of 25 David Giesbrecht/Bravo


On paper, it seemed like a joke. Could artists — painters, photographers and performance artists — compete in a reality TV art-off? Working under the pressure of a ticking clock? In different mediums? Teamed with other temperamental artistes? Somehow it worked: big characters, big talent, and challenges you’ve never seen. The finale pitted the bold, soulful work of Abdi against the uber-abstract imagery of Miles and Peregrine’s whimsical carnival — and left us wondering whether a second season could recreate the magic.
12 of 25 Bob Mahoney/The CW


Nothing says season premiere like smothering someone with a pillow! Katherine returned to Mystic Falls with a message: “Game on.” Katherine’s first move: She transforms Caroline from whiny prom queen into a kick-ass vampire.
13 of 25 HBO


At its best, True Blood is equal parts dark drama, gory, over-the-top humor and twists galore. This midseason bloodbath delivered on all counts as the King’s rampage raged on. Denis O’Hare’s vampire overlord went head-to head with Sookie, forced the formidable Queen Sophie Ann into marriage, and ordered Lorena to kill Bill. Throw in Tara escaping the psychotic Franklin by bashing his skull, and Lorena finally sinking her fangs into Sookie, and the whole thing felt like the kind of cliff-hanger usually saved for finales.
14 of 25 Dana Edelson/NBC


She sang, she danced, she made penis jokes. Even more impressive than the 88-year-old’s comedic performance itself was that she did it alongside some of SNL’s most prominent alums, from Tina Fey to Molly Shannon. From resurrected classics like “NPR” to recent hits such as “MacGruber,” White really let it all hang out, just like her tangy, dusty muffin.
15 of 25 Karen Neal/ABC


11. "Halloween," Modern FamilyThe "baby cheeses/Jesus" mix-up may have been a bit obvious, but Sofia Vergara's hysterical impression of a proper American accent in the Dunphy House of Horrors was really scary. Gloria's right though: "Doggy-dog world" does have a nice ring to it.
16 of 25 Scott Garfield/ABC


A shooter roamed through the halls of Seattle Grace, killing off many of the doctors we have come to know and love, and leaving several others on death's door, including Derek Shepherd. After Meredith offered to sacrifice herself to protect the other doctors and subsequently had a miscarriage, the veteran series was taken to a new, deeper level.
17 of 25 Fox


This flashback hour not only expanded the show's mythology of the alternate universe, but revealed the painful backstory behind Walter's decision to kidnap Peter's doppelganger after “his” 7-year-old Peter died. Noble's sublime dual turn delicately balanced the audacity and distress of a grieving parent. This episode also marked the debut of '80s-style opening credits.
18 of 25 Mario Perez/ABC


Say what you will about finale not providing enough answers — we've said it all too. But we still reached for the Kleenex as each character received his or her emotional payoff. Was the great-white-light ending a little confounding? Perhaps, but in the end the finale inspired endless debate — just like the show itself always did.
19 of 25 Bill Records/NBC


With Thanksgiving as its backdrop, the Season 4 finale featured heart-wrenching farewells and tough decisions. Tim Riggins proved the kind of man he was by taking the fall for his brother’s illegal actions. Tami decided not to give in to the school board for advising Becky of her options. Julie and Matt found each other again only to say goodbye. And Landry finally became the town hero with a 46-yard field goal to win the game. Why can’t all dramas be this heartfelt?
20 of 25 Fox


24’s final hour ended on a complicated note — President Taylor realized the grave error of her ways, while Charles Logan went down for good. But it was Jack, hurt, spent and forced to go on the run, whose predicament was both familiar and bittersweet for those fans wanting closure. His tearful goodbye with Chloe — appropriately via video screen — broke our hearts.
21 of 25 NBC


Tom was wearing golf gear, Ron refused to follow a government edict and April was falling in love with Andy. In many ways, it was just another outstanding episode of Parks and Recreation. But then you add in Leslie’s mano-a-mano with Fairway Frank, Pawnee’s most notorious possum — or… was it? “Mr. Campo-Piano, those are pictures of three different possums!” — and all hell breaks loose! How many more days until Season 3 again?
22 of 25 AMC


Every pilot has a lot to prove, but The Walking Dead had the added burden of demonstrating that zombies are interesting for more than two hours at the cineplex. Frank Darabont's wonderfully written and directed pilot did just that by focusing on the hearts of the living characters rather than the brainlust of the undead ones. The episode's emotional climax finds Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes returning to a park to euthanize a legless zombie. "I'm sorry this happened to you," he says, fighting back tears while pulling the trigger. We're only sorry this show had such a short first season.
23 of 25 AMC


A handful of Season 3 episodes could have made the cut, but it's hard to top this classic, which includes the most tense, agonizing 60 seconds committed to film when Hank is told he only has one minute to live. What follows is a brutal, super-charged parking lot shootout to the death between him and the blood-curdling Cousins. It fittingly ends with a gnarly shot of brain splatter on the camera. Simply awesome.
24 of 25 Fox


The episode served as the perfect wrap for Season 1, but also opened doors for Season 2, showing fans that the journey to regionals was just beginning. Finn proclaimed his love for Rachel, Emma moved on from Will, and Sue proved she was capable of (begrudging) compassion for New Directions. Our top moment? Even the biggest critics of Quinn’s pregnancy story line had to have been silenced by the baby’s emotional delivery, to the tune of Queen’s "Bohemian Rapsody." (Well, that and "To Sir, With Love.")
25 of 25 AMC


Don Draper's dizzying downward spiral reached rock bottom — and the result was the best episode in the show's history. To avoid facing the news that his dear friend Anna had died, Don kept Peggy late to hammer out a pitch for Samsonite. While the rest of the office watched the Ali-Liston boxing match, Don and Peggy argued as they worked through their emotional baggage. But when Don broke down after his fears of Anna's death were confirmed, Peggy was right there to catch him. Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss' performances were a one-two punch of brilliance.