We typically ingest television 30 or 60 minutes at a time, and sometimes we have one eye on our phone, another eye on our laptop, another eye on that bag of chili cheese Fritos, and the rest of our eyes on whatever distractions challenge our attention (we're all multi-eyed mutants, right?). But every once in a while an episode does the unthinkable and focuses our ADD on what's on the screen. We're here to high-five those today.
Below you'll find the 20 best single episodes of the 2011-2012 season. According to us. The ones that made us laugh and cry and scream and convulse, in various combinations and occasionally all at the same time. For variety's sake (and to hurt less feelings), we set some rules! Only one episode per series was allowed, and eligible series must have finished no earlier than in the early fall (i.e. most summer series were included so their finales weren't ignored). That's it! Here's the best of the best from the last year! In random order!
What made it one of the best: The surprising romantic storyline in Showtime's domestic terrorist thriller rounded the bases in "The Weekend," but the tension built up over the episode finally exploded during Carrie's interrogation of Brody at the end. It was masterful television as we rooted for an impossible relationship to succeed and knew that Carrie and Brody's "define the relationship" talk would end with someone pointing a gun at someone else or getting executed for crimes against America. Throw in the incredible performances by Claire Danes and Damian Lewis and it becomes one of the best moments of the TV year. And you thought your relationship was messy. —Tim Surette
Other great Homeland episodes: "Marine One," "The Vest," "The Good Soldier," "Pilot"
What made it one of the best: At first glance, not a whole lot seemed to happen in “Far Away Places." But in retrospect, it's one of the most important episodes of the season, setting the stage for events that would happen much later. It hinted at Peggy's dissatisfaction at work, the strain on the Draper marriage, and Roger's ongoing search for a purpose in work and life. Rather than intertwine the dominant storylines of the episode, the writers instead chose to present them as three separate vignettes encompassing a day in the life of Peggy, Roger, and Don. Each vignette featured its own defining moment, scenes that have already become “classics” in the Mad Men mythos: the time Peggy gave a stranger a hand job, the time Don kicked the penthouse door down, and of course, the time Roger dropped acid. —MaryAnn Sleasman
Other great Mad Men episodes: It would be cheating to just list the entire fifth season, right? Fine: “Mystery Date,” “At the Codfish Ball,” “The Other Woman,” “Signal 30”
What made it one of the best: Two words: True American. The gang's impenetrably complex but undeniably awesome-looking drinking game took center stage in "Normal," which was mostly about just how mismatched Jess and her Mr. Fancypants boyfriend were. But really, the four-minute sequence of True American was just about the funniest thing this already pretty hilarious show's seen yet. —Price Peterson
Other great New Girl episodes: "Pilot," "Wedding," "Kids"
What made it one of the best: One hour doesn't seem like long enough to convey a concept that would make a theoretical physicist's head spin, establish a heartfelt emotional center that would carry a series for the entire season, and throw in not one but TWO detective cases to solve, but creator Kyle Killen did and did it masterfully in Awake's "Pilot." This wasn't just a television pilot, it was a work of intelligent, thought-provoking art. —Tim
Other great Awake episodes: "That's Not My Penguin," "Two Birds," "Turtles All the Way Down"
What made it one of the best: The Walking Dead was on life support creatively after a dismal start to Season 2, but it overcame that and became an even better show with the best hour of its comeback, "Better Angels." Shit got appropriately crazy, zombies were destroyed, and one storyline that had been building up ever since Rick showed up in Lori's life again wrapped up the way we thought it would... twice! —Tim
Other great The Walking Dead episodes: "Beside the Dying Fire," "18 Miles Out," "What Lies Ahead"
What made it one of the best: The new CBS hit had been getting better all season long, so it was no surprise that it saved the best for last with its finale, "Firewall." The episode was paced like a man screaming in your face for 60 minutes (in a good way), featured a few twists that psychics wouldn't have seen coming, and a cliffhanger that promises a fresh start to Season 2. This was a course in "Advanced Finale Writing." "Firewall" was an incredibly mature first-season-ender for a show that's still in its infancy. —Tim
Other great Person of Interest episodes: "Witness," "Cura Te Ipsum," "Matsya Nyaya," "No Good Deed"
What made it one of the best: SAMCRO had one hell of a time pushing envelopes all season long, but the homestretch featured one shocking event after another and culminated in fan-favorite Opie finding [spoiler] [spoilered] at the end of the 90-minute "Call of Duty." Combine that with the aftermath of Gemma's [spoiler] with Clay, Clay's continuing push into the rarefied air occupied by only the superest of assholes, and a rocket-launcher fight in a minefield, and "Call of Duty" was Season 4 at its best. —Tim
Other great Sons of Anarchy episodes: "Hands," "To Be, Act One," "Family Recipe"
What made it one of the best: Sorry, rest of television. You got outed for the community theater you are when Game of Thrones lit up an entire bay in green flames and cut a ton of dudes in two during the epic action episode "Blackwater." But it was scribe George R.R. Martin's look into the effects of war on the characters he's created that made this episode more than just an orgy of explosions and man-halfing. Plus, check out the Pyromancer's face! That look says it all. —Tim
Other great Game of Thrones episodes: "The North Remembers," "Garden of Bones," "Valar Morghulis"
What made it one of the best: While Once Upon A Time’s season ended with an unexpectedly momentous finale, for me the best episode of the wildly entertaining (if sometimes ridiculous) first season was the midseason finale, "The Heart is A Lonely Hunter." It followed Graham slowly recovering his fairy-tale memory after a kiss stolen from Emma, and not only included hard evidence of magic in the "real" world (Regina’s crypt full of hearts) but a jaw-dropping lady fist-fight in a graveyard! While I will forever mourn Graham being taken from Storybrooke, this episode really re-ignited my personal curiosity in the curse and logic of the world and his eventual murder was a sinister raise of the stakes that may have serious repercussions in Season 2. —Lily Sparks
Other great Once Upon a Time episodes: "A Land Without Magic," "7:15 AM"
What made it one of the best: Oh sure, you could easily nominate the Season 4 opener "Box Cutter" and its interesting use of an office tool or "Face Off" and its clever use of a wheelchair, but "Crawl Space" beat them all. With the walls closing in on Walter White, he buckled and chose a last resort only to discover that his means of achieving said last resort were gone. Skylar! *Shakes fists at the sky* There lay Walter so defeated and dismayed by his ridiculously bad luck and questionable choices that all he could do was laugh maniacally. And all we could do was look on in astonishment. BEST BREAKDOWN EVER. —Tim
Other great Breaking Bad episodes: "Box Cutter," "End Times," "Face Off"
What made it one of the best: The Vampire Diaries' third season ended up being so top-heavy with quality that by the time it wound down there was no possible way it could keep up that same level of awesome all the way to the end. Seriously, the first nine episodes were about as flawless as a serialized drama gets. So it's a bit of a surprise, then, that Season 3's best episode wasn't even among them. Nope, Caroline Forbes' birthday episode "Our Town" featured not only the nadir of Stefan's monstrous behavior toward Elena, it also marked the beginning of a truly inspired, riveting turn by Klaus as an aspiring mentor figure for Caroline. Writer Rebecca Sonnenshine's dialogue verged on poetry as this famously fast-paced show occasionally slowed down just enough to shine some light on just how human these characters really are. —Price
Other great The Vampire Diaries episodes: "The Reckoning," "Ghost World," "Dangerous Liaisons"
What made it one of the best: If you're going to make a show about ghosts, murder, and gimp suits, then your Halloween episode better be amazing. Fortunately Ryan Murphy's horror drama (the one without singing) nailed it: The second half of his two-part Halloween celebration in particular contained some of the series' best moments. Back-from-the-dead shooting victims, a dog-in-the-microwave fake-out, and a whole boatload of ghosts suddenly freed from the Murder House. But one heartbreaking moment in particular—Constance tearfully applying makeup to her deceased daughter—stands out as being one of the most poignant moments of the whole season. Few shows have mixed horror with emotion like American Horror Story, and this episode was a testament to that. —Price
Other great American Horror Story episodes: "Home Invasion," "Smoldering Children," "Birth"
What made it one of the best: "Larry vs. Michael J. Fox" had at least three hilarious things happening all at once: Larry's rivalry with Michael J. Fox and his insistence that Fox's Parkinson's symptoms were actually just intentional rudeness toward Larry; Larry's tentative friendship with an obviously gay child; and that child's hilarious pro-Hitler leanings. If nothing else, this episode proved that eight seasons in, Larry David still has it. —Price
Other great Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes: "The Bi-Sexual," "Palestinian Chicken," "The Safe House"
What made it one of the best: How to encapsulate without spoiling "Reckoning" for those of you who haven’t seen it yet? Every minute was a shocking revelation. Revenge’s season finale insinuated a main character had been killed and made the show's hero, Emily, a... well, a hero. While she had formerly danced on the edge of “vengeful sociopath” or “self-absorbed fembot” the finale cemented her emotional tie with Nolan and set off a series of emotional bombshells (pregnancy reveal! Suicide attempt! The end of an affair! The beginning of a hook-up!) that left not a single character unaffected and has created a whole new to-do list for Season 2. The finale leaned hard on the writers' considerable talent at dialogue too, including lines of unsurpassed drama that will keep us laughing all summer. —Lily
Other great Revenge episodes: "Commitment," "Chaos"
What made it one of the best: It was a bold move to focus the second-to-last episode of the season, "Consider Helen," on a supporting character, but this artful, elegiac look into Amy's mother's daily life constituted an origin story of sorts: Helen's pervasive grief made Amy the slightly mentally unstable woman she is today. Diane Ladd's powerful, understated work deserves all the awards. ALL of them. —Price
Other great Enlightened episodes: "Pilot," "Sandy," "Burn It Down"
What made it one of the best: The NBC comedy has always been known for its creativity, but this extra-special episode septupled the creativity output for one of the series' most ambitious episodes. Not only did "Remedial Chaos Theory" provide plenty of call-back fodder for the rest of the season (the birth of Evil Abed!), it also had Troy screaming in terror while a troll burned his apartment down. It wouldn't be wrong to say this could be the most perfect thing in every timeline. —Tim
Other great Community episodes: "Introduction to Finality," "Basic Lupine Urology," "Pillows & Blankets"
What made it one of the best: You almost made the list, "Letters of Transit," but we have to give the honors to "The End of All Things." This transition episode from Fringe: The Love Story to Fringe: Everything is Going to Blow Up TWICE had double crosses, heartbreak, and THAT SCENE with Peter and September. All the pieces came together for an unforgettable hour that answered major questions and set in motion the events of the final chapter. —Tim
Other great Fringe episodes: "Letters of Transit," "Everything in Its Right Place," "Welcome to Westfield," "One Night in October"
What made it one of the best: Though the show is labeled as a comedy because we have to call it something, Louie does more for understanding human behavior and interaction than most dramas. In "Ducking," Louis C.K. looked at the sacrifice of the members of the armed forces without taking a preachy stance on war by putting his character on a USO tour of the Middle East. And even cooler? His daughter came up with the idea for the episode. —Tim
Other great Louie episodes: "Niece," "Airport/New Jersey," "Subway/Pamela," "Come on, God"
What made it one of the best: This American adaptation of the Australian comedy started out as an emo kid and a stoner dog and all the leg-humping gags that went along with it. But in the Season 1 finale, "Identity," the show continued down its late-season path of darkness and threw a real brain-wringer at us for one of the most surprising and daring turns of the season. —Tim
Other great Identity episodes: "Pride," "Compassion," "Sacrifice"
What made it one of the best: "Cold Grey Light of Dawn" was notable because it was the first time we really saw our vampires vulnerable en masse, draping themselves with silver chains to avoid Marnie’s Wiccan terrorism. It provided an extremely touching moment for Sookie and Eric, as Sookie stayed with him while he sizzled under his silver... and for Jessica and Bill as well, as they lay alongside each other. Plus it inaugurated Jessica and Jason’s romance—one of the sweetest and most conflicted relationships in a series known for them. Jessica pulling off her chains and struggling toward the burning light of day was no cliffhanger, but it was a beautiful, cinematic moment that stays quietly lodged in my memory many months later. —Lily
Other great True Blood episodes: "I Wish I Was The Moon," "And When I Die"
30 Rock – "The Tuxedo Begins"
Bob's Burgers – "Bad Tina"
Smash – "Bombshell"
Touch – "Pilot"
The Big Bang Theory – "The Countdown Reflection"
Eastbound & Down – "Chapter 15"
Girls – "All Adventurous Women Do"
Justified – "The Devil You Know"
South Park – "The Poor Kid"
Alphas – "Original Sin"
What episodes from the last season would have made your list?