Since televisions were made available to the U.S. public in the late 1930s, Americans have had a love affair with TV. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80 percent of the population watches television on any given day. For years, viewers have gathered around their sets to watch a man step onto the moon, to view multiple royal weddings and to agonize over numerous season-end cliffhangers.
Watching TV can be a mindless way to pass the time. Sometimes, though, a program stands out. Whether it’s the finale of your all-time favorite series or a significant event on a show you watch now and then, certain episodes are just that good. Check out this countdown of some of the best episodes ever, based on votes and ratings at Ranker and IMDb.
40. ‘Scrubs’ — ‘My Screw Up’ (Season 3, Episode 14)
Why: This episode added a moment of poignancy to a usually laugh-filled show.
Episode Details: Brendan Fraser made his third and final guest appearance as Jordan and Danny’s brother and Dr. Cox’s BFF Ben in this moving episode. Ben is visiting to celebrate Jack’s first birthday. Although Ben’s cancer had gone into remission, he fails to follow up with routine screenings and passes away from cardiac arrest while under Dr. Cox’s care. However, this is not clear until the end, when it is revealed that Cox, who was unable to deal with his friend’s death, has been seeing Ben as if he were still alive.
39. ‘Community’ — ‘Modern Warfare’ (Season 1, Episode 23)
Why: The far-fetched premise and mixture of silliness with subtlety made it an episode to remember.
Episode Details: In an attempt to gain early class registration, students wage a paintball war on the campus of Greendale Community College. As there can only be one winner, friendships are tested. Hilarious anarchy ensues.
38. ‘Lost’ — ‘The Constant’ (Season 4, Episode 5)
Why: This episode had the mystery and surprise viewers came to anticipate with an unexpected explanatory time twist.
Episode Details: Desmond’s consciousness jumps around between the present day and eight years prior while experiencing turbulence on the helicopter ride to the ship. When Minkowski dies, Desmond realizes he is facing the same fate and contacts Penny after repairing the broken communications equipment. Before the power is cut off, she tells him she has been searching for him for several years. WHAT?!
37. ‘Dexter’ — ‘The Getaway’ (Season 4, Episode 12)
Why: This episode was filled with surprising twists and emotional turns.
Episode Details: Arthur “Trinity” Mitchell thinks Dexter’s plan has always been extortion. He also thinks he is the only serial killer. Dexter, planning to kidnap and kill Arthur, knocks him unconscious but is interrupted and Arthur gets away. When he later follows through with his plan, Dexter considers giving up killing because of his overwhelming love for his family. However, he returns home to find Rita dead at the hands of Arthur. This one hurt.
36. ‘Lost’ — ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (Season 3, Episodes 22-23)
Why: This jaw-dropping, two-part season finale finally answered some of viewers’ pressing questions.
Episode Details: It is late December 2004, more than 90 days after the Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 crash. Sayid tells Jack he is ready to die if the others can be rescued. Naomi shows Jack how to use the radio in case she doesn’t make it. Sayid, Jin and Bernard are captured after The Others invade the camp. Viewers learn that Jack’s flashbacks are, in fact, flash-forwards to Jack’s life after being rescued.
35. ‘The Walking Dead’ — ‘Too Far Gone’ (Season 4, Episode 8)
Why: This bloody, mid-season finale left viewers wanting more, ensuring their return to the show after the holiday break.
Episode Details: The Governor is motivating the others to take over the prison, fabricating a story to justify his plan. Hershel and Rick, his captives, try to convince the Governor that they can coexist amicably, but their pleas fall on deaf ears. After Meghan is bitten during the assault on the prison, the Governor shoots her in the head. When Michonne runs the Governor through with a katana, Lily, in turn, shoots him.
34. ‘The Office’ — ‘The Convict’ (Season 3, Episode 9)
Why: This episode (written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, known for creating the U.K. version of the series) was more ridiculous, cringeworthy and hilarious than usual … which says a lot.
Episode Details: When Michael learns that Stamford transplant Martin was once in prison, he informs the entire office. When Martin talks about the perks of prison, such as art classes, Pam states that it sounds better than work. Not to be outdone, Michael sets out to convince the staff that their workplace is better than prison, which culminates in Michael locking everyone in the conference room when things don’t go his way. This episode features Michael’s infamous character, “Prison Mike.”
33. ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ — ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (Season 3, Episode 26 and Season 4, Episode 1)
Why: In this two-part episode — the cliffhanging finale of season 3 and the long-awaited premiere of season 4 — Riker struggles with making major decisions, while viewers wonder if Picard will ever return to himself or to the crew.
Episode Details: In this two-part cliffhanger, the Starship Enterprise crew responds to a distress call from a Federation colony, only to find it gone and suspect the Borg. Captain Picard refuses the Borg’s request that he surrender himself, after which they abduct him and make him one of their own. In the second part, the crew tries to help Picard break free from his captives.
32. ‘The Simpsons’ — ‘You Only Move Twice’ (Season 8, Episode 2)
Why: Many viewers consider Hank Scorpio the funniest single-appearance character from the long-running series, and the loads of little details make this episode one to remember.
Episode Details: After Smithers turns down a job offer at the Globex Corporation, the company extends the offer to Homer, who jumps at the chance. The new job mandates that the family must move to a planned community in Cypress Creek. The changes cause Marge to start drinking, Lisa to suffer severe allergies and Bart to be put in a remedial class. The entire time, Homer is oblivious to the fact that his boss, Hank, is a supervillain with an evil plot to take over the world.
31. ‘Breaking Bad’ — ‘Granite State’ (Season 5, Episode 15)
Episode Details: Walter paid Ed for a new identity and relocation. Months later, Ed informs him that Skyler and Walt Jr. are living in a small apartment trying to make ends meet and that Skyler has returned to using her maiden name. Against Ed’s judgment, Walt takes $100,000 and leaves, calling Walt Jr. in the hopes of reconciliation. When Walt Jr. brutally rebuffs him, Walt contacts the DEA, identifies himself and gives them time to trace his location, but flees before police arrive. Jesse, meanwhile, is in the hands of Jack’s gang. This episode also marked the final appearance of Saul Goodman.
30. ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ — ‘The Nightman Cometh’ (Season 4, Episode 13)
Why: The pure fun, rock opera episode was unexpected and outrageous, and viewers loved it.
Episode Details: Charlie writes a musical and convinces the gang to play the roles he has written for them. Charlie gives a ticket to the musical to the Waitress, promising her that he will never bother her again if she attends. Everyone messes up and Charlie becomes increasingly upset backstage. When Charlie descends to the stage on a sun prop singing “Marry Me” to the Waitress, she leaves angrily. Just another day for the gang!
29. ‘Seinfeld’ — ‘The Contest’ (Season 4, Episode 10)
Why: “Seinfeld” at its finest and most risqué, thanks to writer Larry David.
Episode Details: When George’s mother is hospitalized after walking in on him in an embarrassing situation, the gang decides to forgo similar personal acts. This oath turns into a contest, with George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer betting cold hard cash that they could each live in self-denial the longest. Temptations abound and it is never made clear who wins. The then-unmentionable subject was referred to in typical “Seinfeld”-ese, and the “Show about Nothing” was definitely about something, even though nobody said so outright.
28. ‘Game of Thrones’ — ‘The Mountain and the Viper’ (Season 4, Episode 8)
Why: The episode was brutal, even for rabid fans.
Episode Details: Oberyn “The Red Viper” Martell faces off against Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. This fight comes about when Tyrion is placed on trial for the murder of King Joffrey. Tyrion requests a trial by combat in order to avoid a death sentence, and Oberyn volunteers to be his champion. Oberyn’s true motivation, however, is to seize vengeance for his late sister Elia, who was raped and murdered by Clegane. But the fight tragically ends with Oberyn’s death in gruesome fashion, leaving viewers reeling. Another fan-favorite character, dead and gone.
27. ‘Firefly’ — ‘Out of Gas’ (Season 1, Episode 8)
Why: This episode displays the emotion of the crew in this sci-fi cult favorite, particularly toward their ship.
Episode Details: The ship becomes disabled deep in space and Zoe is critically injured. Another ship shows up, but rather than rendering aid, the captain attempts to take over and shoots Mal, who is able to drive the attackers off in his injured state. Throughout the episode, flashbacks show how the crew came to be assembled. In the end, Zoe regains consciousness and orders the crew to return to Serenity.
26. ‘Star Trek’ — ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ (Season 2, Episode 15)
Why: The critters caused the episode of the typically serious sci-fi show to become an unintentional comedy.
Episode Details: Captain Kirk deals with Federation bureaucrats and a Klingon battle cruiser as the crew works to protect a space station with a vital grain shipment. While on leave, Lt. Uhura receives a furry creature called a tribble as a pet from an interstellar trader. Once on board, the tribble begins to multiply and eat all of the food they can find. The tribbles ultimately save the day and the original owner is ordered to retrieve them all.
25. ‘Person of Interest’ — ‘The Devil’s Share’ (Season 3, Episode 10)
Why: The emotional aspects of this episode made it stand out above others.
Episode Details: The team seeks justice for Carter’s death, but Finch fears Reese will go too far. Reese and Fusco each confront Simmons separately. Although Reese collapses, Fusco engages Simmons in a fistfight and hospitalizes him. Carl Elias ultimately orders his henchman to finish the job.
24. ‘South Park’ — ‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’ (Season 8, Episode 10)
Why: It’s “South Park” at its bawdy best.
Episode Details: The boys’ fun playing “World of Warcraft” is interrupted by another player who keeps killing them. The boys hold an emergency meeting and plan an attack, but even then they are no match. Cartman hatches a plan to hide in the woods and kill boars to gain enough power to defeat their nemesis.
23. ‘Lost’ — ‘Pilot’ (Season 1, Episode 1)
Why: This episode introduced the world to the engrossing, yet disorienting, show.
Episode Details: In the initial episode, Jack Shephard awakens disoriented in the jungle and follows the path of a running dog to the site of a plane crash on a beach. A surgeon, Jack immediately provides medical assistance before tending his own injuries and the show begins to unfold from there.
22. ‘Person of Interest’ — ‘The Crossing’ (Season 3, Episode 9)
Why: Captivating, edge-of-seat drama.
Episode Details: HR captures Fusco and although he is tortured by Simmons and Detective William Petersen, he won’t talk. Shaw saves Fusco’s son Lee when he anticipates that Simmons plans to have him killed. The government-created AI known as the Machine gives out Reese’s number, but Simmons shoots and kills Carter, who dies in Reese’s arms.
21. ‘House’ — ‘House’s Head’ (Season 4, Episode 15)
Why: It’s packed with intrigue.
Episode Details: Dr. House is riding a bus when it crashes and is diagnosed with a concussion and is unable to recall incidents prior to the injury. In and out of hallucinations, House tries to help diagnose the bus driver and to recall someone important who was on the bus. He finally remembers that it was Amber, and realizes that she was the Jane Doe dying at another hospital. This one kept viewers’ heads spinning long after it was over.
20. ‘The Walking Dead’ — ‘Days Gone Bye’ (Season 1, Episode 1)
Why: This pilot episode had fans hooked.
Episode Details: Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes is shot in the back chasing criminals and goes into a coma. When he regains consciousness, the hospital is empty except for dead bodies strewn about and something trying to break through a chained door. He hurries home to find his family gone. A father and son he encounters tell him about the zombie apocalypse that occurred when Rick was comatose. From there, a television phenomenon was born.
19. ‘Mad Men’ — ‘The Suitcase’ (Season 4, Episode 7)
Why: Don and Peggy’s relationship becomes stronger than ever.
Episode Details: This unique episode of the Emmy-winning series featured Don and Peggy almost exclusively. The pair worked together in the abandoned SCDP office to come up with a great campaign for Samsonite suitcases. The two share dinner, drinks and plenty of personal details about their lives in a way neither typically has in the series to this point. The episode ends with Don getting some heartbreaking news and showing himself to be more vulnerable than ever. Grab the tissues!
18. ‘South Park’ — ‘Scott Tenorman Must Die’ (Season 5, Episode 4)
Why: It shows Cartman at his worst and features one of the most shocking twists in history.
Episode Details: When 9th-grader Scott Tenorman cons him out of $10, Cartman is out for blood. He plots revenge using several methods, but none turn out as planned. That is, until the gruesome chili cook-off. There may be no more shocking episode of a comedy ever produced.
17. ‘House’ — ‘Wilson’s Heart’ (Season 4, Episode 16)
Why: Drama at its finest.
Episode Details: This episode is the second part of the fourth season’s finale. Amber is found at Princeton General in rapidly deteriorating condition, even after successful surgery. Dr. House’s memory loss following the bus accident he and Amber were in is preventing him from recalling something that happened with Amber before the accident. House undergoes deep brain stimulation. Although he finally remembers the cause of Amber’s decline, there is no way to save her. Amber passes away and House goes into a coma after having a seizure.
16. ‘Seinfeld’ — ‘The Soup Nazi’ (Season 7, Episode 6)
Why: It was an instant classic that still gets quoted today.
Episode Details: Kramer has been giving high praise to a soup stand, so Jerry, George and Elaine decide to try it out. However, they also learn that the temperamental owner is known as the “Soup Nazi,” deciding who should or should not have soup based on small slip-ups during the ordering process. Elaine is banned for one year from the establishment when she orders incorrectly and Jerry pretends not to know his girlfriend when the Soup Nazi kicks her out of the line. You can still hear people saying, “NO SOUP FOR YOU!”
15. ‘Game of Thrones’ — ‘The Watchers on the Wall’ (Season 4, Episode 9)
Why: Viewers saw the death of a love story they had been rooting for against their better judgment.
Episode Details: As they keep watch atop the Wall, awaiting a wildling invasion, Jon and Samwell discuss the relationship Jon had with the Ygritte, one of the wildlings coming to attack them. Meanwhile, among the wildlings, and in order to assure them of her loyalty, Ygritte declares that she will kill Jon. When they finally breach the wall, a battle ensues and, after Ygritte shoots another member of the Night’s Watch, she confronts her former lover, aiming her bow at him and drawing an arrow. As they gaze at each other, Ygritte hesitates. But then Olly, a farm boy whose family was killed by wildlings and who then sought refuge at the Wall, shoots her in the back and she dies in Jon’s arms. Intense!
14. ‘The Wire’ — ‘Final Grades’ (Season 4, Episode 13)
Why: It’s an epic episode that wraps up many storylines and continues many others.
Episode Details: The finale of “The Wire’s” incredible fourth season brought an end to our look into the lives of the kids from Baltimore’s public education system, whom we’d been following for 13 episodes. “Final Grades” is 78 minutes long, making it one of the longest in the show’s history, and there was plenty to cover. As was typical in the series, all the hopeful storylines were brought to grim endings, with characters who we thought were heroes being reduced to little more than weaklings being crushed by the systems they are fighting against.
13. ‘Six Feet Under’ — ‘Everyone’s Waiting’ (Season 5, Episode 12)
Why: It’s been called the best series finale of all time.
Episode Details: The series finale of this darkly funny, dramatic HBO show about a family who owns and operates a funeral home has been praised as a perfect capper. The members of the Fisher family are dealing with death personally, after eldest sibling Nate dies of a stroke. Ruth finds herself alone for the first time in 40 years, David agrees to leave home to recover from his brother’s loss and Claire is struggling with a major life decision. Nate and Brenda’s daughter is born prematurely and Brenda is plagued by visions of her recently deceased husband. The series ends with heartwarming and tearjerking flash-forwards. You’re guaranteed to cry during this one.
12. ‘Game of Thrones’ — ‘The Laws of Gods and Men’ (Season 4, Episode 6)
Why: The variety of individual perspectives included in this episode make it a fan favorite.
Episode Details: King Stannis Baratheon and his right-hand man, Ser Davos, travel across the Narrow Sea toward Bravos in order to seek funding for Stannis’s war efforts. Drogon, meanwhile, continues to cause trouble, burning a field and killing a flock of goats. Then there’s Yara Greyjoy, happily getting some more screentime, who leads a raid to rescue her brother, Theon, from the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, only to find him a mere shell of his former self. And finally, we see Tyrion face down his father in his trial, where some harsh truths are spoken.
11. ‘Breaking Bad’ — ‘To’hajiilee’ (Season 5, Episode 13)
Why: The suspense in this one may nearly kill you.
Episode Details: Walt meets with Jack and Kenny to discuss a hit on Jesse, but asks that it be quick and painless. Jack agrees, but only if Walt teaches Todd how to cook blue meth. Jesse sends Walt a picture of his money barrels, causing a panicked Walt to rush to the spot where they were buried. A car approaches and Walt hides, but gives up when he sees Hank, Gomez and Jesse. Jack and his men approach and a poignant, terrifying gunfight ensues before the show ends on a gripping note.
10. ‘Futurama’ — ‘The Luck of the Fryrish’ (Season 3, Episode 4)
Why: Viewers were caught off guard by the emotional twist of this typically off-beat, comical sci-fi show.
Episode Details: Depressed about his luck, Fry recalls a seven-leaf clover he had as a child that gave him amazing luck. Fry, Leela and Bender set off to Fry’s childhood home in Old New York to find the clover. Not only is the clover missing, but they also come across a statue of a man wearing a seven-leaf clover inscribed, “Philip J. Fry – The Original Martian,” which angers Fry. Thinking his older brother stole his clover and his identity, Fry learns that this Philip J. Fry was a millionaire, rock star and astronaut who was buried with the clover. When he tries to rob the grave, however, he discovers that the man was his nephew, whom his brother named after him.
9. ‘M*A*S*H’ — ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’ (Season 11, Episode 16)
Why: The end of show, which ran from 1972 to 1983, marked the end of an era.
Episode Details: The Korean War is coming to an end. Hawkeye Pierce is in a psychiatric hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown. Charles is angry when he learns that the only reason he landed a position at a prestigious Boston hospital is because of Margaret Houlihan. Klinger announces that he is staying behind as he is in love with Soon-Lee Han, a local Korean refugee. This series finale is the most-watched episode of any show in American TV history and will likely never be challenged for that title.
8. ‘Game of Thrones’ — ‘The Lion and the Rose’ (Season 4, Episode 2)
Why: Viewers delighted in watching the royal they loved to hate finally meet his demise.
Episode Details: King Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding has arrived when Joffrey falls to the floor, vomiting. Poisoned, the boy king is dead. But who killed him? George R. R. Martin is known for killing off beloved characters in his series of books that inspired the show. It was a nice change of pace to see the death of a character whose unthinking cruelty inspired so much hatred.
7. ‘The Twilight Zone’ — ‘To Serve Man’ (Season 3, Episode 24)
Why: This classic episode is based on wordplay and fear of the unknown.
Episode Details: When a race of 9-foot-tall aliens come to Earth, international leaders are wary. Soon, however, the Kanamits are providing the means to end world hunger, energy shortages and wars. A cryptographer named Patty decodes the title of the Kanamit book. The title, “To Serve Man,” seems proof that the aliens have come to help. Humans begin taking trips to the alien planet, until Patty decodes the rest of the book. She tries in vain to stop her boss from boarding the spaceship, telling him that “To Serve Man” is in fact a cookbook.
6. ‘Breaking Bad’ — ‘Face Off’ (Season 4, Episode 13)
Why: It’s packed with suspense, revenge and intrigue.
Episode Details: Walter White is remarkably intellectual. He has also become tremendously evil at this point in the show. Yet somehow, in an episode such as this, viewers still root for him. Walt offers Hector the opportunity to kill his longtime enemy, Gus. When Hector goes to the DEA, Tyrus informs Gus, thinking Hector is turning informant. Gus goes to Hector’s room in the nursing home with plans to kill him, but Hector begins ringing his bell, which is connected to a bomb. Hector and Tyrus are killed instantly; Gus, with half of his face missing, walks out of the room, fixes his tie and falls to the floor, dead. It was one of the most iconic images in recent TV history.
5. ‘Doctor Who’ — ‘Blink’ (Series 3, Episode 10)
Why: This episode is an origin story of sorts.
Episode Details: When Sally Sparrow and Kathy Nightingale explore an abandoned house in 2007, an angel statue sends Kathy back in time to 1920. At that moment, a man comes to the door and gives Sally a note from his grandmother, Katherine Wainwright, nee Nightingale, who died in 1987. Sally, with help from Kathy’s brother, find cryptic messages from a certain doctor coming through on some very specific videos.
4. ‘Hannibal’ — ‘Mizumono’ (Season 2, Episode 13)
Why: Nowhere to watch this but from the edge of your seat.
Episode Details: In the season finale of the acclaimed psychological thriller, criminal profiler Will Graham confronts brilliant psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter’s dark secret. Will and FBI leader Jack come up with a plan to catch Hannibal. However, Alana knows that Hannibal could also be leading them into a trap. She is right, and by the end, rivers of blood have been shed and the future of the plot is totally unknown.
3. ‘The Sopranos’ — ‘College’ (Season 1, Episode 5)
Why: TV’s era of anti-heroes is born.
Episode Details: While on a college visit with Meadow in New England, Tony spots a former mob member who turned state’s witness and was relocated under a new identity. Amidst all the pressure of helping his daughter figure out her future and trying to keep his other life hidden from her, Tony has to take care of the problem in a brutal fashion. Before this episode, viewers had never seen the main character actually kill anyone and this made him a little tougher to root for. TV Guide called it the second-best episode in television history.
2. ‘Game of Thrones’ — ‘The Rains of Castamere’ (Season 3, Episode 9)
Why: It was shocking in its nihilism and brutality.
Episode Details: After Robb Stark falls in love with Talisa, a healer he met on the battlefields, he reneges on his vow to marry Roslin Frey, a marriage that would have aligned the Frey family with the Starks. His uncle, Edmure Tully, prepares to wed Roslin in his place. The ceremony goes off without a hitch, with Robb, Talisa and Robb’s mother Catelyn in attendance. As the happy couple enjoys a feast, however, Lothar — the son of the Frey patriarch — stabs the pregnant Talisa, killing her and the unborn child. Robb is stabbed next, setting into motion an entire massacre that also eliminated Stark House matriarch Catelyn. Anyone who read the books knew the “Red Wedding” was coming, but the episode was still shocking to viewers.
1. ‘Breaking Bad’ — ‘Ozymandias’ (Season 5, Episode 14)
Why: Viewers watched the visible crumbling of Walt’s life, as his family was never coming back, his cancer was and there was nothing he could do about either.
Episode Details: Jack’s gang takes Jesse away. Jack executes Hank and Walt begs Skylar to pack up, get the kids and leave with him. When Walt Jr. calls the police, Walter takes Holly and leaves. After a phone call to Skylar (that makes it clear to the police he knows are listening that Skylar was not involved in his crimes), he leaves baby Holly at a fire station and goes to take on his new identity. The series was on the grim path to its ending with this masterpiece.