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Our favorite (and least favorite) episodes of 2011

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Best

1. The Good Wife, ”Closing Argument” (May 17, CBS)

Also known as ”The Episode Where They Finally (Finally!) Hook Up.” After two seasons of acting like repressed lovers in a Merchant Ivory drama, Will (Josh Charles) and Alicia (Julianna Margulies) took a deeply viewer-satisfying ride up to the presidential suite, with the elevator doors opening and closing on every floor, giving brief glimpses of Will grabbing Alicia’s hand (bing!), stroking her hair (bing!), and disappearing with her into the hotel room, with HR violations dancing in their heads (BINGBINGBING!). Yes, the secondary story lines were awesome — Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) shame-spiraling over sleeping with Peter (Chris Noth), Eli (Alan Cumming) deciding to bring his consulting firm to Lockhart & Gardner — but if ever there was a reason to pound that gavel, this long-awaited rendezvous was it. —Melissa Maerz

2. Homeland, ”The Weekend” (Nov. 13, Showtime)

Like all the best scary stories, this one started in the woods. When CIA agent Carrie (Claire Danes) brought possibly ”turned” POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) to her family’s cabin, it was either a romantic getaway or a very dangerous experiment — or possibly both. Is Brody a terrorist, or is Carrie just off her meds? And even if she’s paranoid, does that mean she’s wrong? Every tense moment changed your mind — until the final twist left it blown. —MM

3. Game of Thrones, ”Baelor” (June 12, HBO)

Fantasy has never felt so real. From the opening glimpse of doomed patriarch Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) breath in the darkness of his dungeon cell to the final shot of his silent prayer being cut off by an executioner’s blade, director Alan Taylor (who should have received an Emmy nomination for this hour) turned the shocking climax of the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones into darkly gripping high art. —James Hibberd

4. Revenge, ”Pilot” (Sept. 21, ABC)

It was love at launch for ABC’s soapy Count of Monte Cristo retelling: Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) returned to Southampton under a new guise and with the mission of taking down society queen and foe Victoria Grayson (the fabulous Madeleine Stowe) via a delightfully smart game of backstabbing. The beach setting, pretty people, and lavish parties add to the show’s charm, of course, but Revenge‘s appeal remains rooted in the juicy murder-mystery plot launched in this first episode. It’s the gift that’s been giving all season. —Tanner Stransky

5. The Killing, ”Undertow” (May 22, AMC)

The desperation to find Rosie’s murderer was taken to a nail-biting extreme when Mitch (Michelle Forbes) incited her husband, Stan, to seek brutal vengeance on Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren), the man they believed killed their daughter. Trouble is, while Stan (Brent Sexton) was busy slamming Bennet’s head into the pavement, Mitch came to the realization back home that their daughter’s favorite teacher was actually an innocent man. Though it was her character’s lowest moment, it was Forbes’ finest hour. —Lynette Rice

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6. Parks and Recreation, ”Lil’ Sebastian” (May 19, NBC)

Who knew the death of a pony…er, miniature horse, could spark so much change and hilarity? In the third-season finale, Leslie’s (Amy Poehler) over-the-top memorial service — complete with fireballs and wreaths — finally got her a shot at political office, while Tom’s (Aziz Ansari) contributions, including an unforgettable tribute video of the Pawnee icon galloping in slow motion, helped him recognize his dream of opening an entertainment company. Lil’ Sebastian’s death: bad for Pawnee, great for comedy. —Nuzhat Naoreen

7. Glee, ”The First Time” (Nov. 8, Fox)

At last, a gay teen romance got to share the spotlight with its hetero counterpart. As Finn (Cory Monteith) and Rachel (Lea Michele) had sex for the first time with each other, Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss) decided to have their first time too — a decision that made this brave, moving episode sing. All four actors delivered series-best performances, plus Criss and Michele performed a beautiful cover of West Side Story‘s ”One Hand, One Heart.” Creatively, this was the episode where Glee grew up. —Tim Stack

8. Breaking Bad, ”Crawl Space” (Sept. 25, AMC)

While the season 4 finale rocked fans’ faces with its explosive conclusion, ”Crawl Space” kept viewers in a vise grip of suspense. All episode long, the walls closed in on increasingly desperate meth maker Walt (Bryan Cranston), before he finally discovered that his cash stash under the floor had vanished when he needed it the most. As he lay there in the dirt, his anguished cries creepily mutating into deranged laughter, all we could hear was Cranston’s fourth Emmy being engraved. —Dan Snierson

9. Modern Family, ”Treehouse” (Nov. 2, ABC)

With creator Steven Levitan at the pen, this episode had a little bit of everything (Phil with tools and a task, a short but sweet appearance by Kevin Hart, Jay getting dancing lessons from Manny) — but the biggest treat of all was watching Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) pick up guest star Leslie Mann in a bar on a dare from Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Cam called his surprising confidence with the opposite sex ”the gift of the vagi.” But we’ll just call it perfection. —Sandra Gonzalez

10. The Vampire Diaries, ”The Reckoning” (Oct. 13, The CW)

It’s not really a day in Mystic Falls without a couple deaths and resurrections, but what made ”The Reckoning” — in which Klaus (Joseph Morgan) returned to town to wreak havoc by compelling Stefan (Paul Wesley) to attack Elena (Nina Dobrev) — so extraordinary was that it changed the arc for nearly every major character and complicated the Damon-Elena-Stefan love triangle, something a less audacious show would have saved for a finale. —NN

{C} Worst

1. Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event (E!)

It’s hard to pick the most obnoxious part of this bloated four-hour(!) run-up to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ ill-fated wedding. Mother of the bride getting her neck done? The rampant product placement? Or simply the fact that this storybook wedding ended up a lurid tabloid cautionary tale? —Tim Stack

2. Grey’s Anatomy, ”Song Beneath the Song” (ABC)

Glee‘s effect on pop culture has (for the most part) been fun, but not when it infected Grey’s and propelled the soap into producing a musical episode just as it was experiencing an otherwise resurgent season. The doctors of Seattle Grace struggled through ”Chasing Cars,” ”How to Save a Life,” and other songs while trying to save Callie (Sara Ramirez) after a car wreck, which is exactly what the episode was itself. —Tanner Stransky

3. Two and a Half Men, ”Thank You for the Intercourse” (CBS)

The audience may have moved on from Charlie Sheen’s not-so-gracious departure from the series, but the writers clearly hadn’t. How else to explain wasting an entire episode on Alan (Jon Cryer) suffering a mental breakdown and transforming himself — bowling shirts and all — into his deceased brother? It was a cheap, obvious play that yielded even cheaper and more obvious penis jokes. Jon Cryer, you have our sympathies. —NN

4. Dexter, ”Nebraska” (Showtime)

What’s more annoying than too much of Dexter’s chatty dead father? His irritating dead brother. This downright loopy road-trip episode featured Dexter (Michael C. Hall) seducing a convenience-store clerk and shooting street signs from his car while gabbing with the ghost of his murdered sibling, all the while refusing to help his distressed sister catch a serial killer. Seldom has Hall’s vigilante been so unintentionally unlikable. —JH

5. The Killing, ”Orpheus Descending” (AMC)

Unwilling or incapable of resolving the ”Who killed Rosie Larsen?” mystery in a single season, the producers punted to a cliff-hanger filled with ridiculous twists and empty melodrama, which they likened to the boldness of The Sopranos‘ series finale. It’s an admirable standard. Hopefully next season they’ll actually meet it. —Jeff Jensen

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