An assembled list of the (fiscal Emmy) year’s best episodic experiences highlights the embarrassment of riches to be found in the one-hour category.
As a consequence, there was no room at the inn for a subpar season of past occupant “Nip/Tuck,” a significant season of “Smallville” or such cultish offerings as “Gilmore Girls” and “Veronica Mars,” which, frankly, guys my age probably shouldn’t watch without turning up on a list.
In fact, the overflow was such that this roster cheats a bit, incorporating two-part episodes that were too good to separate. And when push came to shove, milestone developments tended to trump other contenders, if only through the TV-addled haze of memory. So in ascending order, here goes:
10. “Battlestar Galactica” (“Lay Down Your Burdens,” March 10) — This constantly surprising sci-fi revival managed to outdo itself in the season finale, which bravely blew up the entire premise, putting the Cylons in charge while the humans vowed to “fight ’em until we can’t.”
9. “Grey’s Anatomy” (“It’s the End of the World,” “(As We Know It),” Feb. 5, Feb. 12) — ABC’s medical drama ratcheted itself up to another commercial level thanks to this post-Super Bowl two-parter, which culminated with a truly shocking moment when the explosive that had held the hospital hostage abruptly went off. By any measure, a breakout year for this sophomore hit.
8. “Desperate Housewives” (“It Wasn’t Meant to Happen,” April 30) — Although it’s fashionable to bad-mouth this ABC dramedy, the series featured strong episodes during the May sweeps, highlighted by Lynette (Felicity Huffman) engaging in misdirected instant-messaging sex with her peculiar boss as well as Bree (Marcia Cross) confronting Betty (Alfre Woodard) about their romantically entwined kids.
7. “Big Love” (“The Affair,” April 9) — HBO’s polygamous drama peaked in this hour in which Bill Paxton indulges in an “affair” with one of his three wives, beautifully played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. What initially looked like a wispy conceit provided the basis for an engrossing family drama, heightened considerably by having actors such as Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern in supporting roles.
6. “24” (“7 a.m.-9 a.m.,” Jan. 15) — Killing off two characters in the first few minutes, Fox’s standard-bearer for serialized thrillers opened with a tremendous bang and mostly avoided (though not entirely) the mid- and late-season slumps that tend to plague the concept. The series might also have assembled its finest cast to date, with yeoman work by Gregory Itzin and Jean Smart as the Nixonian president and his pill-popping first lady.
5. “Rome” (“The Spoils,” Nov. 13) — Captivating from the start, HBO’s bold dramatic countdown to Caesar’s assassination soared in its penultimate episode, when the two former soldiers who forged an unlikely bond are finally reunited in a rousing, deliciously bloodthirsty gladiatorial combat.
4. “The West Wing” (“Election Day, Part I and II,” April 2, April 9) — Going out in style, NBC’s premier drama rebounded to its former glory with the runup to the presidential showdown between the characters played by Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits, providing the kind of smart, aspirational political discourse that reminded us how fiction is often far more satisfying than reality.
3. “Six Feet Under” (“Everyone’s Waiting,” Aug. 21) — Although the last few seasons of this show were uneven, the finale’s haunting flash-forward sequence — featuring the future deaths of the extended Fisher family — ranks among the great codas for any program, earning this series about dysfunctional undertakers the right to R.I.P.
2. “Lost” (“Two for the Road,” May 3) — Sure, the series has become a trifle convoluted in season two, but no less riveting, highlighted by the stunning murder of two castaways by Michael (Harold Perrineau), or, as network execs call it, “cost control.” Still a delicate high-wire act, the producers have thus far managed to keep the intricate storytelling airborne, tantalizingly peeling away layers without bringing viewers too close to unraveling the show’s mysteries.
1. “The Sopranos” (“Live Free or Die,” April 16) — Who else? The show’s most poignant plot thread in a pretty amazing season has involved Vito (Joe Gannascoli), the gay mobster who, outed to his peers, took refuge in New Hampshire during this jaw-dropping hour. Showbiz phenomena such as “The Sopranos” frequently struggle to live up to their hype and accolades, but this season, all you can do is give them a big hug and say, “A salud.”