Let’s all agree: Every TV show has that one season that seemingly stands above the rest. Sometimes it’s universally accepted among fan circles; other times, it can only be determined after several hours of heated debate (which can last longer than the actual season of TV itself). However you arrive at the conclusion, a great season of TV leaves a lasting impression — and with that in mind, the many, many TV fans at EW have rounded up the standout seasons from 70 of our favorite shows.
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— and you should — it’s because you love the first season. From one of TV’s single best pilots to a truly epic season finale, the 27-episode (!!!) first run introduced us to one of teen drama’s great families: the Cohens, for whom a life of insecurity and paralyzing self-doubt is the only way. Season 1 launched the show to phenom-status while simultaneously reviving the teen soap opera genre, making “geek” chic, and stepping up television’s music game along the way. Highlights include a life-or-death trip to Tijuana, the introduction of Chrismukkah, and THE NANA.
The Office was probably the only show to ever make you think working in an office could actually be kind of fun, and no season of the NBC sitcom did that better than the second, when it properly diverged from its BBC source material. The sophomore season brought us delights such as Office Olympics, a little ditty known as “Ryan Started the Fire,” and, of course, Jim and Pam’s first (and second!) kiss — and with it, the hope that they were finally getting together. Spoiler: they weren’t (yet), but from season 2 onward, we knew eventually it was going to be JAM forever.
Each season of Showtime’s dark-passenger serial-killer saga was as good (or as bad) as Michael C. Hall’s nemesis. And none could compete with the chilling, ice-in-the-veins evil of John Lithgow’s domesticated monster, the Trinity Killer. It didn’t hurt that this was also the season in which Keith Carradine joined the cast as Special Agent Lundy and our antihero took (reluctant) baby steps into family life with Rita and his newborn son, giving him something to lose. Like a twelve-episode cat-and-mouse game, the season culminated with a truly shocking sting-in-the-tail finale featuring a corpse in a bathtub and a toddler crying in a pool of blood — his fate eerily mirroring his father’s own baptism into evil once upon a time.
season that has it all: a gorgeous location (Palau), a perfect balance of newbies and returning favorites (such as single-name legends Parvati, Ozzy, and Cirie), epic blindsides, the biggest blunder of all time (Erik giving away his immunity and promptly being voted out), and an inadvertent two-man comedy team (Chet and Joel). That’s why season 16 of the reality giant is number 1 in our hearts.
Sherlock occupied a narrow golden age in which the show had just begun to grow in international popularity but had yet to reach the state of global cultural mania that sent it off the deep end. It’s no coincidence that this is also the season in which we get the most of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. With his dance moves, Vivienne Westwood, and “Staying Alive” ringtone, the whimsical villain was the Joker to Sherlock’s Batman, and the source of the most fun the show ever produced. Sure, “The Hounds of Baskerville” was a weak link, but every season had one stinker, and it barely dents the glorious frenzy of “The Reichenbach Fall” final act.
The season opens with Gus coldly slitting the neck of one of his henchman with a box cutter and closes with Gus being blown up by a bomb planted by Walt on the wheelchair of an old nemesis. Indeed, the menacing, ever-darkening tension in the meth drama quite literally exploded at the end of the charged chess match between the two drug lords, and that final scene of the season, in which we learned that Walt, not Gus, had poisoned an innocent child, put a chilling exclamation point on the savagery of the far-gone man who declared, “I won.” —
were incredibly strong, but if we’re looking at season-long arcs from start to finish, there’s no match for the perfect pacing of season 3. From Stefan’s time on the road with Klaus to his reunion with Elena, the action never dragged, constantly pushing its characters to new, often very dark places. By anchoring all of its action with the love triangle — which Salvatore will Elena choose?! — the series was able to deliver some of its best twists, from the arrival of Esther to Alaric’s death (and subsequent revival). And with the incredibly charismatic Original family as its central villain, season 3 delivered two of the series’ strongest hours: “The Reckoning” and “The Departed,” a finale that would bring Elena’s story full-circle in one of the show’s most powerful moments.
Mad Men’s fourth season doesn’t waste any time cutting to the question at the heart of the series. “Who is Don Draper?” a journalist asks at the top of the season premiere, and the man formerly known as Dick Whitman deftly excuses himself from giving a real answer. The 13 episodes that follow search for the truth of the subject, however, as the recently-divorced Don burns his life to the ground with booze and prostitutes and then hesitantly, hopefully, begins to rise from the ashes. It certainly helps that the middle season’s middle episode, “The Suitcase,” is one of the series’ all-time greatest hours as well as a critical narrative turning point, taking Don out of his downward spiral — and toward an impulsive engagement to Megan. “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things,” a hurt Faye Miller tells him in the finale after hearing about his new fiancée. That may be true of Don Draper, but after four seasons, we’ve never loved Mad Men more.
is GREAT. It’s when the Panthers are at the top of their game. It has “Mud Bowl.” It has Bo. BUT, if you can look past the shiny exterior of the season that made you fall in love with the show, you’ll notice that season 4 is
at its best. After seasons spent watching Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) teach boys how to be men, we watch as he has to practice what he’s preached when he finds himself having to pull himself up and create greatness out of nothing at East Dillon. There is no moment more heartbreaking than Coach forfeiting the team’s first game of the season, and no moment more rewarding than watching East Dillon beat West Dillon in the end. From start to finish, this season had the most seamless arc, which also happened to be its most meaningful — because it represented everything the show was about, everything it had preached for years. Also, it gave us “The Son”
The CBS sitcom was one of the first to return from hiatus after the 2008 writers strike — a stretch that co-creator Carter Bays remembers as “very fertile.” He’s absolutley right. It includes a terrific guest turn by Britney Spears, a little ditty called “Sandcastles in the Sand” co-starring James Van Der Beek, and a memorable episode in which Ted tries to woo Stella (guest star Sarah Chalke) in record time. “The day of shooting [the “Two-Minute Date”] really felt like orchestrating the moon landing,” Bays told EW in 2013. “It was fun seeing everybody working against a clock. And the final product was this sweet romantic moment that says everything we want to say with a show. If you pick two minutes that tells what the show is about, I’d select those two minutes.”
Largely drawing from the back half of George R. R. Martin’s third Westeros novel, the fourth season of HBO’s fantasy hit marks a magic crossover high point for source material and adaptation. In book form, it was the high point for Martin’s skills as a thrilling twistmaster, with a fatal wedding, a snowy showdown, and a literally mind-crushing trial-by-combat. And in TV form, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss perfected their panoramic adaptation strategy. Big hashtaggy moments like the Purple Wedding and the Trial of Tyrion run alongside fascinating digressions — you could make a whole show out of Arya and the Hound’s Cormac McCarthy-ish road trip through the ruined continent. And with Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell, the show coughed up its last truly memorable new character.
A contrarian view: While season 4 is a terrific run of episodes and brutal twists of fate,
GoT delivered its greatest emotional highs in season 6 and combined them with unprecedented production values and the younger cast members coming into their own to give their strongest performances. Coming out of the darkness of season 5 — which saw fan favorites at their lowest points — this Emmy record-setting season powerfully staged the resurrection of Jon Snow, his tear-jerking reunion with Sansa, Daenerys’ fiery seizure of a Dothraki army, the devastating and revelatory fate of Hodor, and Sansa’s bitter triumph over Ramsay. The year was capped by the two finest episodes of GoT — or arguably of any TV show this century: The jaw-dropping “Battle of the Bastards” and the operatic, Sept-nuking “The Winds of Winter,” both gracefully combining nuanced intimate drama and epic conflict.
It starts with what is considered by many to be the best
Walking Dead episode ever, “No Sanctuary” — a tour de force complete with two emotional reunions (Carol and Daryl; Rick and Judith) as the gang escapes from the cannibals of Terminus. It ends in Alexandria as Rick and Morgan come face-to-face just as Rick has executed someone. No season mixed action and agony better than this crucial arc.
Did you think we’d champion any other season as the best in
RuPaul’s Drag Race herstory? Not today, Satan. RuPaul has sashayed many a fabulous queen into the worldwide spotlight of drag, but none have amassed a post-show following as quickly as season 6 victor Bianca Del Rio. From episode one, she kept whiny contestants like Laganja Estranja in check while serving lewks (and verbal comedic hooks) on the main stage. At the time, the show was growing up and out of its humble beginnings on Logo, and Del Rio fused the old school pizazz of her craft and costumes with a fiercely original (yet still accessible) creative energy that helped Drag Race make the jump from niche novelty to global phenomenon.
After capping off its shortened first season with one hell of a cliffhanger — welcome to the fray, Addison! — the ABC medical drama hit its stride in season 2 with some of its best storylines and episodes. MerDer in turmoil, Izzie cuts Denny’s LVAD, Bailey gives birth to Tuck (and the phrase “vajayjay”), Cristina loses Burke’s baby, Mark Sloan and Callie Torres arrive, George and Meredith have sex! This season also includes infamous patients (like the duo skewered together by a pole in a train crash) and iconic lines, from Cristina calling Meredith her “person” to Meredith urging Derek, “Pick me, choose me, love me.” And, of course, there’s the most-watched episode in
history, the post-Super Bowl hour in which Meredith holds a bomb steady inside a man’s chest cavity. (Poor Coach turned to pink mist!)
Damages pilot opens in a yellow-tinted haze on the image of a young woman covered in blood, emerging from the elevator of a Manhattan high-rise, panicked and on the run. We’ll find out how she got there over 13 delectably twisty episodes, even as more flashforwards keep raising new juicy questions. Damages was puzzlebox TV before it was in fashion, a legal thriller driven by the imposingly enigmatic Patty Hewes as she vanquished billionaire opponents by any means necessary. That the first season sustained itself, keeping you on the edge of your seat to the final seconds, felt like a magic trick — and like any magic trick, there was nothing quite like seeing it for the first time.
FX’s Cold War spy drama has always been about relationships — to family, friends, ideology, and country. In the bleak and deliberately structured fourth season, the show dug even deeper and explored how these relationships could be both beneficial and damaging, by using a bioweapon as a metaphor. You couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread watching Philip and Elizabeth handle a dangerous, weaponized virus while also dealing with their daughter Paige, and, of course, their own tormented psyches. Furthermore, this was the year in which many seeds that were planted in the first season finally bloomed, and the payoffs were definitely well worth the wait. —
The Good Wife had a knack for reinvention. It was never afraid to blow up its status quo in order to present new challenges to its characters. This was no more apparent than in the show’s exceptional fifth season, which explored what happens when friends become enemies. Chicago lawyers Alicia Florrick and Cary Agos decided to leave Lockhart Gardner in order to start their own firm, thereby pitting themselves against their mentors Diane Lockhart and Will Gardner, with whom Alicia shared a complicated romantic history. “Hitting the Fan,” the episode in which Alicia and Cary’s plans are revealed, remains one of the most propulsive and exciting episodes of television we’ve seen yet, and it doesn’t even feature a big-budget battle — just a shocking and aggressive desk clearing. This dramatic separation not only tested every relationship on the show, but also furthered the series’ interest in exploring the costs of ambition. (Season 5 also featured the show’s best twist ever, which is only at least the fourth most interesting thing of the season). —Chancellor Agard
If you can get past the laugh track, the inaugural season of Aaron Sorkin’s shamefully short-lived series about an irreverent,
SportsCenter-like news show (anchored by Josh Charles and Peter Krause) is everything a workplace comedy should be. Sorkin’s high-IQ, rat-a-tat cocktail of noble sentiment, scalpel-sharp satire, and sports-as-a-metaphor-for-life drama was fueled by an innate love of language and a palpable fondness for the people who craft it for a living. Think of it as The West Wing with walk-off homeruns. Network TV hadn’t aimed this high since its Norman Lear-in-the-‘70s heyday…and for that, it would be canceled after two seasons.
Four years in, and yes, we had been down this road. But after a third season that saw Billy strut around with a coterie of women from a Robert Palmer video before dropping dead of a brain tumor, this outing is remarkably grounded, poignant…and sad. Robert Downey, Jr. joins the cast as Larry, a love interest for Ally. Off-screen, however, Downey was battling addiction issues, which led to increasingly sporadic on-screen appearances and his abrupt departure from the series. Lore has it that creator David E. Kelley was even forced to scrap a planned marriage for Ally and Larry. Episode 20, which features Sting and Downey, Jr. serenading Ally on her birthday with “Every Breath You Take,” is the stand-out.
New York City has been depicted on TV and film through different lenses, from the glitzy parties to the gossip world of the Upper East Side, but no show has managed to depict modern-day New York — largely high and millennial — better than Abbi Jacobson and Illana Glazer, especially in their series’ fourth season. From the perils of a daily commute, often rancid and rushed, to the stress of dealing with low-paying jobs, high rent, and even the President’s effect on daily life, these girls managed to poke fun at the eternally fabulous chaos of the city clouded by pizza, vapes and of course, reliable friendship.
Alan Ball’s landmark ensemble drama was unlike anything else on the air when HBO premiered it in 2001 — a sweeping panorama of sexuality, mortality, and family that balanced sharp realism with gorgeous dream sequences. Meeting the Fishers for the first time, in the wake of patriarch Nathaniel’s death, was similarly invigorating — a family so familiar in their angst, their love, and their complexity that they could’ve been your own. No season managed to feel simultaneously like an epic and a slice of life better than the first — though the entire show’s legacy certainly speaks for itself.
Gilmore Girls does include the entirety of Rory’s relationship with Jess, whom many (correctly) consider to be her best boyfriend, but their romance — and the legendary dance marathon that kicks it off — isn’t all that makes this a great chapter in the Gilmores’ lives. It takes place over the course of Rory’s senior year of high school and, after three seasons of nonstop Harvard talk, delivers the brilliant curveball of her choosing to go to Yale — a decision which ties her that much more closely to Richard and Emily. Throw in a four-part Thanksgiving, a wistful look at Lorelai’s past, and one tearjerking valedictorian speech (even Luke cries!), and season 3 is easily the Gilmore greatest.
A decade after the show’s conclusion, Rachel and Ross are still the most name-checked
couple, but Monica and Chandler were truly the sitcom’s romantic heart. Season 5 turned their unexpected romance into comedy gold with episodes like “The One With All the Kissing,” which finds Monica hiding in a bubble bath and Chandler kissing Rachel and Phoebe as his “European thing” to keep their relationship a secret. The charade gets milked for laughs for more than half the season in episodes like “The One with the Kips,” “The One with all the Resolutions,” and the iconic “The One Where Everybody Finds Out.” The season is also bursting with classic moments, including the Turkey-on-Monica’s-head Thanksgiving episode, our introduction to Chandler’s “work laugh,” and the whole group’s trip to Vegas (culminating in Ross and Rachel’s drunken wedding). Season 5 showcased the acting ensemble at their peak, making plenty of room for the blend of humor and heartfelt emotion that made the show a hit for 10 seasons.
Trista was the first Bachelorette, and, quite frankly, she did it best. Whether you were rooting for the series’ greatest love story — Trista and Ryan — or pulling for a Charlie upset, it didn’t seem like Trista could go wrong. Well, unless she chose Charlie. In the end, Trista and Ryan got their love story, which resulted in a wedding and, to this day, the franchise’s biggest success story.
Arrested Development’s comedy was too weird to stay on broadcast TV longer than three seasons; years later, its Netflix-exclusive season 4 proved too weird even for streaming viewers. But season 2 was the show’s perfect nexus between strangeness and brilliance. Without ever missing a beat, this batch of episodes saw Tobias join the Blue Man Group and Gob learn the true value of an expensive suit, while Buster’s attachment to his mother cost him a hand. George Sr., of course, continued to imitate both George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein in all the worst ways.
, the show sometimes veered into PSA territory, but season 1 was gloriously self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, perfectly campy but anchored in the real world in a way that was like almost nothing else on TV. Looking back on it now, the musical’s exciting two-part first cycle, which ended with cheerleader Quinn giving birth and Jonathan Groff’s Jesse St. James performing with Carmel High School’s Vocal Adrenaline, seems like a relic from a different era.
Homeland is the perfect example of a show that came out the gate so strongly that it set itself up for nearly-inevitable disappointment. However, whether the series went downhill afterward is, frankly, irrelevant to the masterpiece that is the first 12 episodes. This season was like television clickbait: it knew how to hook you right from the start, and there wasn’t an episode that didn’t end in the most delectable cliffhanger. Homeland’s freshman season also provided the audience with plenty of watercooler debate over whether Sergeant Nicholas Brody was actually a spy for a terrorist — a mystery of murky loyalty that was never matched in any of the follow-up seasons.
Bones settled into its role as the sort of reliable procedural that might run for, say, 12 seasons on Fox, it spent years trying on different genres just to see how they fit. But
was never more consistent than in season 2, a dark blend of the show’s best elements. The personal drama was tightly serialized: In one arc, Brennan found a new partner-turned-boyfriend when Booth was sidelined by trauma. The action hit closer to home when Brennan’s con-man father returned, and, in EW’s pick for the series’ all-time best episode, Brennan and Hodgins were buried alive. New, no-nonsense boss Cam shook up the team, and the comedy was dry enough to lighten the mood without lowering the stakes. But most importantly, season 2 did right by Booth and Brennan, giving them space to fall into bed with other people even as they gravitated toward each other. And did we mention that undercover trip to Vegas? —Kelly Connolly
It was the kind of year that would take home a blue ribbon at the Harvest Festival. After finding its groove over the first two seasons,
Parks and Recreation finally landed on a winning formula when it traded Paul Schneider’s city planner Mark for two out-of-towners with a little more personality: eternal optimist Chris Traeger and killjoy-with-a-heart-of-gold Ben Wyatt. Their goal was to slash the Parks Department’s budget, but they wound up staying to build something great instead, and as they joined Leslie and her team in defense of Pawnee, Parks and Rec became a vision of what the government could be. From “Flu Season” to “The Fight,” season 3’s blend of comedy and idealism was the real Pyramid of Greatness.—Kelly Connolly
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One of the MTV series’ greatest villains came along with one of the show’s greatest twists:
Stiles is the Nogitsune! If that isn’t enough drama for you, season 3B played home to the series’ most shocking moment, which also goes down as its most heartbreaking: Allison dying in the arms of the man she loves. For a show that was all about surprising fans and making them feel things, this season took the cake.
’s chief antagonist throughout the six-season run, season 2 of the FX drama stands out because of the emergence of another memorable Raylan Givens foe. As Mags, the Bennett clan matriarch and local criminal kingpin, Margo Martindale intimidated and surprised (to Emmy-winning degree). In addition to Martindale, Kaitlyn Dever, playing a young girl caught between Raylan and Mags, also shined on the often predominately male-led show. But the season’s No. 1 takeaway was clear: Never drink Mags Bennett’s apple pie moonshine.
never shied away from dealing with very real, very emotional issues, yet its season 4 arc, which saw Kristina battling breast cancer, was arguably its greatest achievement. Any
fan will always remember the phrase, “There’s something I need to tell you,” and not just because it was the title of that episode. Outside of Kristina’s battle, season 4 also gave Amber her biggest love story, in Ryan, while Sarah had a choice to make: Should she be with Mark or Hank?
As with any of the five seasons of HBO’s polygamy drama, so much happens in season 3. Bill marries a fourth wife, Ana, only for her to cut and run just a few days later. Roman is on trial for rape and child sex abuse but manages to be acquitted when Adaleen bribes Rhonda into refusing to testify. Sarah gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. Ginger dies, Kathy dies, Barb has a cancer scare, and Nicki steals Margie’s identity to get a job at the D.A.’s office and has a super-steamy flirtation with her boss, Ray. But there’s one element of the season that made the third batch of episodes take the cake: Lois’ ridiculous and continued unsuccessful attempts to murder her husband, Frank, and his simultaneous attempts to woo her back (which he does). It’s wild and over-the-top and inexplicably works thanks to the committed performances of Grace Zabriskie and Bruce Dern.
Now this is how you start a series. With TV’s most expensive pilot at that point,
began with a bang (and a crash), instantly hooking more than 20 million viewers per week through intriguing mysteries, revealing flashbacks, and hilarious Sawyer one-liners. Packed with countless unforgettable moments, including the show’s first major death (R.I.P. Boone) and Sawyer and Jack’s heart-to-heart about the latter’s father, the debut season culminates in the question that fans spent months endlessly speculating over: What’s in the hatch? (Answer: a charming Scotsman).
‘s fifth season was quite literally four years in the making. The show’s creator Eric Kripke always claimed he had a five-year arc in mind when he started the show, which means that seeds which had been planted over the past four seasons all came together to build to the ultimate brother showdown: Lucifer vs. Michael (meaning Sam vs. Dean) in the literal apocalypse. It doesn’t get better than that.
Star Trek built the infrastructure for a half-century (and counting) of cosmic wonder, with 29 episodes that blast the starship Enterprise into the weirdest corners of the galaxy and the human condition. It’s a galaxy built from reused backlots, empty planetscapes that look like the thirstiest drylands of greater Los Angeles, and the not-so-occasional bottle episode, but the no-fi special effects didn’t matter. Creator Gene Roddenberry and his collaborators oversaw adventures with eerily fascinating monsters (“The Man Trap,” “The Devil in the Dark,”) and inhuman gods run amok (“Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Squire of Gothos”) and tense Cold War metaphor-thrillers (“Errand of Mercy,” “Balance of Terror”) that invent whole alien cultures in a couple minutes. And Kirk fought a lizard man, and the crew caught space-madness, and we learned you should never fall in love when you travel to the past. Some episodes have aged into candy-colored camp, but with William Shatner’s macho thoughtfulness and Leonard Nimoy’s cerebral sensitivity, even the worst parts of season 1 boldly go somewhere.
Weddings and funerals, murder and suicide, amalgamation and capital: This was the frontier, and this is America. Every episode of creator David Milch’s western drama features better dialogue than any show you’ve watched this week, but it’s in the second season that his radically expansive vision hits a new level of perfection. While Ian McShane’s quote machine Al Swearengen is initially sidelined, the show paints in unexpected margins of its world, meticulously tracking how a violent mining camp becomes a town. Cruel to list just a few of the wonderful actors, but marvel at the eerie power of Garret Dillhunt’s eerie Wolcott, the envoy of horrific “civilization” — and the arrival of Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst, that civilization’s dark god.
Jason Mesnick was the likable single father who’d just had his heartbroken by DeAnna Pappas. Translation: It wasn’t hard to root for him. But no one expected the finale that Jason provided: After saying goodbye to Molly, he spent the better half of the finale bent over a railing sobbing his guts out. By the time Melissa arrived, the nation was shocked when he gathered himself long enough to get down on one knee. Then, we were even more shocked when, at the “After the Final Rose” ceremony, he changed his mind and went back to Molly. AND they’re still married to this day. How’s that for the most dramatic season ever, Chris Harrison?!
Is there anything better than seeing Katie Holmes and James Van Der Beek exchange unlikely teenage dialogue (ahem, “I just think our emerging hormones are destined to alter our relationship and I’m trying to limit the fallout”) for the first time? Or Pacey telling me — er, Tamara Jacob — “I’m the best sex you’ll never have”? Or having your heart completely shattered as Joey sings “On My Own”? Or that grand finale when Joey and Dawson finally kiss for the very first time? Those 13 episodes represent simpler, impeccably soundtracked times, and while the show went on to many bigger, more milestoned moments, future seasons never fully recaptured season 1’s full-circle first-love magic.
Buffy went on, its engrossing mythology became more and more complex, introducing new conceptions of evil and going on elaborate philosophical tangents that certainly made the series richer (and ensured it never got boring). But there’s beauty in simplicity, and the most perfect stretch of Buffy episodes is its second, when it evolves beyond the weird and wacky season 1 but still sticks to the show’s central metaphor — high school is hell — by providing its most elegant, most devastating expression in Buffy’s doomed romance with Angel. In short: Have sex with a boy and he can become a monster. But what a monster! Angelus’ connection to Buffy makes him the biggest bad of them all (did any subsequent villain ever say anything as haunting as that “Passion” speech?); still, his defeat, seconds after his soul is restored, is somehow more heartbreaking than it is victorious. Between that storyline and the introductions of Kendra (R.I.P.), Oz, and a certain bleach-blond British vamp and his less-than-sane lover, it’s a season of TV worth feeling passionate about.
In this spellbinding set of episodes, Tony and Carmela attempt to build new lives as a newly separated couple — a development that rocks the world of their already troublesome son Anthony. And the death of Carmine Lupertazzi wreaks havoc on the New York and New Jersey families, thus prompting the age-old question: Who’s the boss?
. It provided the best mix of action, espionage fun, romance, and silly pop culture references and homages. The conflict between Team Bartowski and Fulcrum, a rogue group of spies, was the show’s strongest and most engaging season-long arc, and it was rather satisfying watching Chuck become a better spy and more proactive character. Moreover, season 2 featured some of the show’s best guest-stars, including Scott Bakula, Chevy Chase, Tricia Helfer, and Gary Cole.
It’s not often that a show saves its best for last — but that’s exactly what Shawn Ryan’s gritty cop drama did. After years of bringing in new adversaries for Vic Mackey, such as Monica Rawling and Antwon Mitchell,
The Shield looked within the Strike Team, pitting him against his former friend and partner Shane. An all-time season and series was capped off tragically and perfectly with “Family Meeting,” which featured a devastating end for Shane and his family, while also landing Vic in his own personal prison: unaware of his children’s whereabouts and stuck behind a desk. And the series’ final shot of Vic grabbing his gun and walking out of his office, seemingly prepared to risk his freedom by returning to the streets, serves as both a perfect conclusion and one that makes you desperate to see what’s next.
It might be hard to pinpoint a best season for a series that was nominated for 95 Primetime Emmy Awards and won 26, but an argument can be made for the stellar sophomore installment, which picked up immediately after the dramatic assassination attempt in the season 1 finale. Josh Lyman grapples with the trauma of being shot in the award-winning episode “Noël”; Republican lawyer Ainsley Hayes makes her debut and shows that smarts and patriotism can come from both sides of the aisle; and President Bartlet comes clean to his staff (and to America) about his multiple sclerosis diagnosis — and implies he will run for reelection in the much-praised finale “Two Cathedrals.” (EW even included the episode in our end-of-the-decade best-of pop culture list.)
was Aaron Sorkin’s vision of politics with decency at its center,
marked a similar worldview transposed to the world of cable news. The first season was standard Sorkin – a group of empathetic people working to deliver the news for the sake of the facts and bettering the world (nevermind the ratings). Though hindsight is 20/20, here the show genuinely managed to make old news feel like compelling, edge-of-your-seat drama, as in “5/1” when the characters anticipate the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. Sorkin expertly balanced his attitude toward the news, which in later seasons became preachy, with the inter-personal dynamics of the newsroom, including various romantic dramas and the battle for the soul of the network. The season finale brought all of these things to a head with a superb guest star appearance from Jane Fonda and Maggie’s (Alison Pill) epic
rant that ended with a season-in-the-making kiss. In its first season,
offered us a glimpse of what the news could and should be while allowing space for us to fall for its quirky cast of characters.
Back to the Future riff, but season 2 exploded with fresh creativity. Co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland took classic sci-fi tropes and twisted them to explore contemporary issues of interpersonal relationships and mental health. “Total Rickall” remains the show’s landmark achievement — a home invasion by shapeshifting alien parasites allowed Harmon and Roiland to riff on bottle episodes, “Cousin Oliver”-type characters, and clip shows, while also exploring how healthy relationships can still support anger and strife. This run of episodes must also hold the record for weirdest cameos of all time, given Christina Hendricks’ turn as a hive mind-controlled alien species and Jemaine Clement’s role as a singing, omnipotent fart.
ANTM is as much about “modeling” as RuPaul’s Drag Race is about motor sports. You come to the show for fashion eleganza but you stay for the crazy contestants — and no contestant proved that more than cycle 6’s self-proclaimed “biracial butterfly,” Jade Cole. From her epic Cover Girl commercial flub in episode 6 (“Hey, girl!” *twirls* “Oh, I feel fabulous!”) and singular vocabulary (“decipheration,” “analystic,” and “dwelve,” anyone?) to her adamant declaration that the show is not, in fact, titled America’s Next Top Best Friend, Jade’s delusional candor made cycle 6 the most consistently entertaining strut down the ANTM runway in the show’s history.
The second season of The CW’s flagship superhero drama featured the show’s best villain in Deathstroke, who was effectively a creation of Oliver’s making. Powerful flashbacks detailed how Oliver was forced to inject his ally with super solider serum Mirakuru to save his life, causing Slade Wilson to basically go mad and vow revenge on Oliver for allowing Shado to die so Sara Lance could live. The season built toward an ultimate showdown between them with very real stakes, along the way bringing Sara into the fold in present day as The Canary, introducing Roy Harper as the eventual vigilante Arsenal, and ultimately forcing Oliver to face real loss with the death of his mother at Slade’s hands.
Even the show’s worst episode (“Black Market”) can’t eclipse the two-part second season of
from shining through as the show’s more propulsive realization of its post-apocalyptic space-opera premise. The midseason arc showcasing the arrival of the Battlestar Pegasus, ruled by the warmongering Admiral Cain, put the Galactica’s heroes into an impossible moral conflict; the hour “Scar” was a compelling stand-alone showcase for Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck; and the season climaxed with a shocking “One Year Later” time jump — a stunningly original twist in 2006, and one that’s since been seldom utilized to greater impact.
also had a shortened first season, gaining immense traction through word-of-mouth and social media buzz heading into season 2, which detailed how our white hat-wearing heroine Olivia Pope previously got her hands dirty alongside a cabal of heavy hitters to rig the election and ensure Fitz would become POTUS. Through flashbacks, we learned how Olivia and Fitz came to fall in love, but we also saw the cabal commit dirty deeds, including framing Quinn as the Molotov Mistress, and giving rise to the delicious villain Billy Chambers. The season ended with a number of big shockers, including ostensible hero Fitz killing Verna Thornton, but more so than that was discovering that the B613 baddie working from the shadows was actually Olivia Pope’s own father.
Sure, the first season set the stage for a long-running mystery of why notorious criminal mastermind Raymond Reddington would only work with FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen to track down a list of dangerous criminals, but it wasn’t until the season 5 when Liz was finally in on the truth — for the most part — that both of the show’s dynamic leads could have a bit of fun. While there are clearly still secrets between them, knowing that Red is her father initially allowed Liz to give into some of her darker impulses embedded in her DNA to the audience’s delight. But after the shocking death of her husband, it gave way to Liz turning into her father, using any means necessary to get revenge, and allowing Boone a commanding presence on the NBC thriller.
Alias’ five seasons fall into two categories: the first two and then everything else. It’s not that the later years weren’t fun; it’s just that the early years were nearly perfect. In its second season, the twisty spy drama became a family affair when Sydney Bristow’s ex-KGB mom Irina turned herself in, reopening old wounds for Sydney and dad Jack. Sydney’s work with the CIA entangled itself in all of her relationships that year. Along the way, the show reinvented itself twice: Alias blew up its premise in a bold post-Super Bowl episode, then pulled the rug out from Sydney yet again in a jaw-dropping finale. Season 2 was Alias at its go-for-broke best. It also gave us the best line to ever kick off a fight: “I just remembered: Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream.”—Kelly Connolly
Beginning a season by killing (or appearing to kill) off multiple beloved characters wouldn’t seem to be the best recipe for success. But for
, the end for David Palmer, Edgar Stiles, Michelle Dessler and, presumably, Tony Almeida, kickstarted the series’ Emmy-winning, adrenaline-filled high mark. And possibly even more crucial to the fifth season’s success was the rise of Charles and Martha Logan, the first couple whose treacherous and crazy antics we always assumed would be impossible to top.
Six episodes of absolute bliss between the gang’s junior and senior years: Brenda and Donna go to Paris, try on horrible fake French accents and flirt with Dean Cain; meanwhile back at home, Vanessa Williams and Brian McKnight’s “Love Is” constantly plays in the background as Dylan and Kelly betray Brenda by hooking up. Or is it more???
After publicly admitting that season 2 had problems (due in no small part to his stepping away from the writers room), creator Marc Cherry returned as showrunner. Among his most immediate fixes: He began the season by advancing the storyline by six months and made Kyle MacLachan a series regular as Orson Hodge, the mysterious man who would ultimately become Bree’s deliciously complicated mate.
30 Rock was so consistently excellent in terms of its rock-solid joke density that it might seem strange to pick season 1 as a favorite — especially considering we didn’t get Jon Hamm’s beautiful, dumb doctor until season 3 and Wesley Snipes until season 4. But a rocky pilot notwithstanding, season 1 introduced a bounty of long-running jokes that would continue to be developed over the course of the show — see: The Rural Juror — plus a bevvy of phenomenal guest stars. This is the season Isabella Rossellini utters the immortal phrase, “Dammit, Johnny! You know I love my Big Beef and Cheddar.” There’s simply nothing better.
Weeds became a very different show once it left its suburban community of Agrestic after season 3. The first few “reboot” years were messy, unsuccessfully implementing telenovela conventions, but everything clicked into place for season 6. The Botwin family was on the run for all 13 episodes, which both accelerated the show’s overall pace while also leaving room for superb character work. Gradually, the season built toward a reckoning for its antiheroine, Nancy, whom Mary-Louise Parker played with unsparing brilliance. And the final shot — a freeze-frame of Nancy turning herself in, as her family left her behind — was profound enough to mark the show’s conclusion. Too bad it didn’t.
was never afraid of change. After introducing viewers to the streets of Baltimore and the likes of Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale, the underrated second season shifted to the docks and a new set of faces. The third season would return the spotlight to the eventual end of the Barksdale Organization, paving the way for another change-up in season 4, which brought the educational system into focus. Terrible cop-turned-compassionate public school teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski was our familiar in, but it was the young group of Dukie, Michael, Randy, and Namond that delivered the heart and emotional gut punch.
The X-Files’ third season was classic in an Old Hollywood sense. Like a self-styled pair of noir detectives, Mulder and Scully tracked a Southern Nessie in “Quagmire” and faced down a man with deadly powers of persuasion in “Pusher,” an early standout from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. Writer Darin Morgan tilted the show sideways with his oddball take on the agents, pushing them into comedy territory and winning The X-Files‘ only writing Emmy, for “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” in the process. (He redefined the show, but Morgan only wrote four episodes of the original series; three were in season 3.) In the aftermath of Scully’s abduction and the lead-up to her cancer, the show’s mythology was still urgent and personal. And it was all wrapped up in sleek, shadowy visuals that made even the season’s weak spots look like art.—Kelly Connolly
Community’s best formulation of brilliant, bizarre, hyper-referential comedy — a difficult balance to hit correctly, as later seasons without creator Dan Harmon or with Yahoo would attest. Many of Community’s most memorable episodes belong here, from Abed’s My Dinner with Andre-themed birthday party to the strip-search lost-pen bottle episode. Season 2 of Community got viewers to both reflect on how pop culture twists modern relationships and constantly ask, “Wait, what did they just get away with?” By the time Betty White shot Joel McHale with a crossbow, there were still 23 episodes to go.
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With each season, Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novels became increasingly detached from reality until we arrived at the third season, which felt more like a fever dream than the quasi-procedural the show appeared to be when it first premiered. The season began with Will Graham chasing Hannibal to Italy in order to exact his revenge over the traumatic events of the season 2 finale, and the second half of the season was luscious and bizarre adaptation of Thomas Harris’
The Red Dragon. These two story arcs showed the series at its best. What’s remarkable about the nightmarish final season is that it ends up making the strongest case for allowing the show to end there, putting a frightening period on the odd, complicated, and engrossing relationship between Will and Hannibal.
Curb Your Enthusiasm season is filled with classic episodes. Given the consistency it’s demonstrated over a nearly two-decade broadcast history — okay, save its most recent run — everyone’s bound to have their favorites. But the show’s peak was season 6: Larry taking in a family that survived Hurricane Katrina provided more bitingly funny and nuanced racial comedy than anything a Wanda Sykes cameo could accomplish, not to mention a more satisfying throughline. (And also: The introduction of Leon!) The divorce arc of Larry and Cheryl pushed the show in surprising new directions, too, culminating in a most unexpectedly romantic season finale.
because it exists in a sweet spot for diehard fans: it occurred after the Mona reveal, but before the Charlotte reveal, at a time when the show’s mysteries were still fun and didn’t feel like they’d gone on for too long. Not to mention that season 4 is home to many of the show’s biggest twists: Ezra might be “A!” Jessica DiLaurentis is killed! Ezra is shot! Oh yeah, and ALISON IS ALIVE!
Fresh off winning the best comedy Emmy for its second season,
returned for its third — and arguably funniest — with guest stars galore (Woody Harrelson, Natasha Lyonne, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeremy Piven, and Sandra Bernhard among them), proof Hollywood was paying attention to the groundbreaking NBC sitcom and wanted in on the action. Sean Hayes’ Jack scored comedy gold — in a season highlight, Cher slaps him — and then there’s the time Jack gets, well, jacked up on caffeine, delivering a tongue-twisting, 200 mph monologue. But before all of that, the show goes back in time to a mid-‘80s Adler Thanksgiving, where audiences see Will, after befriending Jack, get up the nerve to tell then-girlfriend Grace he’s gay. Will’s coming out may not have gone over well, but Eric McCormack’s performance did, earning him a best comedy actor Emmy in 2001.
The Leftovers did not go gently. The HBO drama made the most of its shortened final season and went out wildly, with eight episodes so distinct they each got their own theme song. Any one of the last five could make a case for being the best episode of the series. Whether they arrived via a trippy boat ride with a lion-worshiping cult or were summoned by a call from the star of Perfect Strangers, the characters found themselves this season on a curious walkabout in Australia, questioning how much they’d healed and whether they even wanted to. Kevin broke from reality. Nora weighed an offer. Matt literally interrogated his faith. Laurie strapped on a Scuba mask. It was a surreal grace note to cap off a show that started out grim, ending with one last story about the ways we all disappear. —Kelly Connolly
belongs on the list of all-time great series, there’s no argument when it comes to picking the best season of Kurt Sutter’s biker drama. SOA’s sophomore year reached heights that, unfortunately, the subsequent seasons were unable to match. The season focuses on the arrival of white separatists, led by businessman Ethan Zobelle (Adam Arkin) and his henchman A.J. Weston (Henry Rollins), who hope to drive SAMCRO out of Charming. Their evil is quickly put on full display as Weston and company kidnap and rape Gemma (Katey Sagal), with the aftermath of the painful storyline leaving the tough as nails matriarch shaken throughout the season, and in turn, bringing out the best in Sagal. The sole downfall of the season actually comes in its conclusion, setting up an extremely underwhelming season 3 central arc.
Happy Endings introduced us to six goofy, unpredictable and endearing friends who you wished were part of your own gang. The first seasons of the sitcom did such a good job ensnaring our affection, it should’ve been the first of 12 seasons of the ABC comedy (no, we’ll never let this go). While Alex and Dave’s navigation of a break-up while remaining in the same friend group offered plenty of laughs and ridiculousness, more crazy hilarity came from getting familiar with (and jealous of) Max and Penny’s codependency as well as Jane and Brad’s eccentrics. The first season has everything from zombie-apocalypse challenges to Jazz-Kwon Do and a whole bunch of happy endings (to each episode) in between.
A sophomore slump this was not. After we all came to know and love the residents of the Loft, they threw the hijinks into high gear. Jess is single, jobless, and on a tear to meet guys, Hot Doctor Sam joins the mix, Cece and Schmidt are
schtooping temporarily, and a few of the show’s best long-running bits get started (like Tran, Nick’s friend from the park, and Julius Pepperwood, the ex-cop from Chicago). This was also the season that showed us the more heartwarming side of the show: Nick lost his dad, Schmidt let his guard down for Cece, and the Loft Gang went from friends to family. Really, though, season two earns the superlative title because it gave us this scene of Schmidt and Winston trying to buy crack.
Before Kristen Bell was vying for a spot in the Good Place, she played the titular gumshoe in the high school noir series
. And while we loved watching her pull off that kidnapping in season 2 and hunt down a serial rapist in season 3, Neptune High’s sassy P.I. shines brightest in her debut season as newly minted outcast investigating the murder of her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried). Throw in her witty banter with new best friend Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III) and her steamy romance with Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), and it’s easy to see why season 1 stands out.
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