8. "The Good Wife" - "Hitting The Fan" (Season 5, Episode 5)
"The Good Wife" has always been consistently entertaining, well-written and beautifully acted, but has sometimes felt a little disposable, and as a CBS legal procedural, never really stood a chance at attracting plaudits from hipper critics. But in the last year, the show has upped its game enormously, becoming un-ignorably good, and this season's "Hitting The Fan" in particular, can compete with anything that premium cable has to offer. The episode sees a long-simmering storyline erupt, as lead Alicia (Julianna Margulies, who's had real fun with making her character less obviously sympathetic of late) and younger partner Cary (Matt Czuchry) are revealed to have been plotting to leave the firm run by Will (Josh Charles) and Diane (Christine Baranski). The Lockhart/Gardner partners didn't know it was coming, but the audience did, though to be honest, probably expected it at the end of a season, not five episodes in—a measure of how much the show is not dicking around. Their scheme exposed, Alicia and Cary scramble to get the new firm established (taking as many of their old bosses' clients as they can), while Will and Diane, who were barely on speaking terms before, team up for vengeance. It's all magnified because Will and Alicia are former lovers, and their confrontation was positively electric. It takes real confidence in a show to blow up the status quo like this, in a way that, potentially, can never be rectified, but "The Good Wife" has been quietly stacking up confidence in spades, and so we end up with something that demonstrates why this is the best show that you probably haven't been watching.
7. “Boardwalk Empire” - “White Horse Pike” (Season 4, Episode 10)
The mantra of “Boardwalk Empire” in season 4 might have been to defy expectations. Sure, the fourth go-round started predictably slowly, but in the course of its slow constricting coil it suddenly snapped to attention later in the season. Those paying attention to the show’s rhythms know the penultimate episode is where all the action happens, but the most dramatic and intense episode “White Horse Pike” was actually the slowly-simmering and the electric antepenultimate episode (in a season that demonstrated its first cliffhanger ending too). All season, black mobster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) has been at loggerheads with the new man in town, Dr. Valentine Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the educated, erudite African American, who constantly prods at Chalky for being nothing more than a house n*gga for Atlantic City mob boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). The episode features several twists, turns and layers; the Florida crew led by Vincenzo Petrucelli (Vincenzo Amato) and Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) trying to double cross Nucky’s bootlegging deals; Agent Warren Knox (Brian Geraghty) twisting the screws tighter on Nucky's brother Eli (Shea Whigham) to rat; the Chicago Southside crew lead by Al Capone (Stephen Graham) almost being gunned down in an assassination attempt; and Margaret Thompson (Kelly MacDonald) making deals with her estranged husband’s rival Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). All of this mind you, elegantly composed, never stuffed and happening amidst the blood feud between Chalky and Narcisse hitting its fever pitch. Everyone is getting tested and squeezed. Nucky spares Lansky's life for the betrayal and during his big meeting with New York Italian boss Joe Masseria (Ivo Nandi), as he demands reparations for his loss, the ace in the hole drops: Narcisse is in cahoots with the other side. Not only does this mean Nucky’s hand has no play, a wounded Chalky White seemingly on his way out of town is a sitting dead duck. How he survives is one of the most intense and nervewracking episodes of the show ever, a true testament to the fact that when this show hits all the high marks, it’s unstoppable.
6. "30 Rock" - "Hogcock!/Last Lunch" (Season 7, Episode 12/13)
Tina Fey's hall-of-fame sitcom "30 Rock" only aired a handful of episodes in 2013—most of its stellar final season aired at the tail-end of last year. But luckily, there were a handful, including double-length series wrap-up "Hogcock!" and "Last Lunch," which might be among the finest achievements of the show. Set after show-within-the-show "TGS" has been cancelled, it sees Fey's Liz Lemon stewing as a stay-at-home mom, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) trying to find new satisfaction after reaching his dream job, and immortal redneck page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) settling into his new gig as the head of NBC. It's easy for a series finale, especially one for a show as long-running as this one, to turn out something self-indulgent and self-satisfied. There's certainly a ton of callbacks here, everything from Kenneth's magical qualities to Jenna's long running affair with Mickey Rourke, but they're not just references, they're subversions or additions to long-running gags, rather than just mere fan service. It retains the elements that made the show so beloved—sharp satire, nibbles at the hand that feeds them, A-list cameos (Julianne Moore! Ice-T!), pop culture references (there's always time for a Temple Grandin joke) bonkers, surreal riffs, and Alec Baldwin saying things like "Ass attack." But sensibly, it also grounds its second half in the friendship between Liz and Jack, the long-running spine of the show, leading to a genuinely emotional conclusion. And when that emotional conclusion is scored to an incomprehensible song from the Broadway adaptation of "The Rural Juror," you know you're witnessing TV greatness.
5. "Girls" - "One Man's Trash" (Season 2, Episode 5)
Even more so than the first, the second season of “Girls” was a bit of a mixed bag. But unlike its debut season which always snapped back to the core foursome, this sophomore outing became a much darker show that tested its audience who had tuned into a series about female friendships and got one about girls (mostly separately) in crisis. That audacious strategy found creator Lena Dunham exploring the boundaries of what the show could be and may have resulted in some storylines we could’ve done without (visiting Jessa’s Dad for one) but also yielded some of the series’ best installments. Standouts included the flat-out funniest episode of the series thus far, “Bad Friend” a.k.a. The One Where They Do Coke, “On All Fours” a.k.a. The One Where Adam Um, Does That Thing To His Girlfriend, and “One Man’s Trash” a.k.a. The Patrick Wilson episode. Probably the most divisive episode of appointment television this year, “One Man’s Trash” was (sorry haters), also one of the best. When the dust settled, it was clear that there was a growing divide between the two very different audiences watching the show. Former “Sex And The City” addicts wondering where all the other girls went felt that this bottle episode tested their patience with the increasingly dark series but those willing to let Dunham chase down her muse found one of the most unique half-hours of scripted television in quite some time.
The setup is simple: Dunham’s Hannah meets Joshua (Wilson), a handsome recently divorced doctor and the two impulsively hook up and spend an incredibly intimate weekend together. Expertly directed by Richard Shepard (“The Matador,” “Dom Hemingway”), “One Man’s Trash” plays more like a short film, sidelining all of the supporting characters to focus on the inner life of Hannah, a character we’ve seen talk a lot about what she says she wants. But over the course of their brief time together, Hannah drops her defenses and admits that she just wants a normal (read: boring) life too, just like everyone else. Many were repelled by Hannah’s selfishness, (after she confesses her secrets to Joshua, he tries to return the favor only to be ignored), but Dunham never intended to endorse her onscreen persona’s actions, only to create an interesting character, which has resulted in some extremely polarizing reactions from viewers. One of the best things Judd Apatow did when he came on board as producer was actually not to teach the former indie filmmaker too much about the medium and because Dunham isn’t saddled with the rules of how TV is supposed to work, she’s free to break them. Never has that freedom been put to better use than on this unforgettable episode. While we’re hoping that Season 3 is a little more consistent, when the highs are this high, who can complain?
4. "Enlightened" - "Higher Power" (Season 2, Episode 3)
Mike White's "Enlightened," while sadly cut down in its prime, was one of the major TV treats of 2013, and picking out a single episode is almost impossible. But such is the quality of "Higher Power" that, despite it being wildly different from the rest of the series and barely featuring Laura Dern's Amy (one of the great TV creations of the last few years), it ultimately became the natural choice. Breaking away from the main storyline, it follows Levi (Luke Wilson), Amy's ex-husband, as he goes to the Hawaiian rehab center that changed her life in a bid to overcome his own substance-abuse issues. Like a 30-minute mini-movie, related mostly in voiceover via letters from Levi, it sees him go from skeptical and irritable to someone who, while he hasn't been "enlightened" like his ex, is going to try his damnedest to make a genuine recovery. He nearly doesn't get there, escaping the center with new friends Dani and Travis (Ashley Hinshaw from "Chronicle," and former "Girls" star Christopher Abbott, both doing killer work), and drinking and snorting their way into oblivion. But when he wakes up the next morning, he sees the light in a way that his younger friends can't. It's one of the more moving and truthful depictions of addiction and recovery we've seen on television, aided by top-class writing and direction from creator White. And perhaps more than anything, it marks the return of Luke Wilson, whose star has dimmed in recent years after a series of questionable choices, but reminds everyone here that he's more than worthy of a comeback.