If the TV-on-DVD revolution has taught us anything, it's that TV series should be considered in season-sized chunks, even if the series themselves never relied on season-long story arcs. Below, The A.V. Club offers a consumer guide of sorts: our favorite shows, broken down by the way you can buy them in stores.
The Sopranos: Season Three
Why it's the best: Because Tony Soprano's monumental selfishness leads to him ignoring the dangerous spiral of his daughter's boyfriend—the boy he promised his late best friend that he'd look after. Soprano also has an affair with a neurotic saleswoman (played by Annabella Sciorra) who isn't stable enough to deal with his caprice. The Sopranos extends The Godfather's use of the mob as a metaphor for American capitalism, and season three is where the nature of corporate irresponsibility is shockingly exposed.
Best single episode: "Employee Of The Month," the controversial episode where Dr. Melfi gets raped, and debates whether to use her influence with Soprano to get revenge. Her decision, and the final, clipped line of dialogue, remains one of the most chilling moments of the series to date.
Runner-up season: Season one—still an astonishing, accomplished introduction to the TV epic of our time.
Seinfeld: Season Five
Why it's the best: With the too-long storyline about the NBC pilot out of the way—and the show having become a bona fide hit in the process—Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and the rest of the creative team started to stretch a little, coming up with wonderfully nasty bits about a botched bris and the ego-damaging effects of "shrinkage."
Best single episode: The season finale, "The Opposite," where George decides to change his luck by doing the opposite of his instincts, leading to an upsetting of the cosmic balance that makes Elaine chronically unlucky. Seinfeld, of course, stays "even-Steven."
Runner-up season: Season seven. It isn't on DVD yet, but when it hits the shelves later this fall, complete with George's ill-fated engagement and the introduction of the Soup Nazi, it'll become the best Seinfeld season available for purchase.
Arrested Development: Season Two
Why it's the best: The intricately self-referential underpinnings of the series' comedy really ramped up in the second season, with lots of jokes about missing hands, absent fathers, topless Spring Break-ers, and magic tricks gone wrong.
Best single episode: "Good Grief!", in which heartbroken members of the Bluth family walk around with their heads drooped, Peanuts-style, while Vince Guaraldi music plays. At one point, a Snoopy doghouse even appears in the background.
Runner-up season: The even-crazier season three, with a memorable guest turn by Charlize Theron as Michael Bluth's, um, different girlfriend.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season Three
Why it's the best: It starts with the titular series star off her home turf and outside the Sunnydale-nastiness pattern that haunted the rest of the show. It ends with a huge transition, as the main cast graduates from high school with an explosive confrontation. And in the middle, it introduces Faith and follows her down the dark path, brings in Anya, revels in the Mayor's wacky brand of evil, and features some of the best single episodes of the entire series, including "Band Candy," "The Wish," and "Doppelgängland."
Best single episode: "The Zeppo," in which Xander has a manic night out while the rest of the show hilariously parodies itself in the background.
Runner-up season: Season four. Riley is a pill and the Initiative can be a yawn, but "Hush," "Restless," and "Something Blue" are worth it.
Chappelle's Show: Season Two
Why it's the best: In its second season, Chappelle's Show evolved from an intermittently hilarious showcase for Dave Chappelle's improvisational gifts and penetrating observations into a ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon. Riffing irreverently on racial stereotypes remained the series' forte, and at its best, Chappelle's Show was as wickedly satirical as The Simpsons in its prime. The Comedy Central smash could still be hit-or-miss, but even the weaker skits benefited from the strength and consistency of Chappelle's overarching comic vision of the myriad ways America remains culturally segregated.
Best single episode: Though it owes a tremendous debt to Mr. Show's "Altered States of Druggachussets," the foul-mouthed, bleakly satirical Muppets spoof "Kneehigh Park," with its feral, sourly philosophical parody of Oscar The Grouch, helps make episode 10 the series' pinnacle.
Runner-up season: The first season of Chappelle's Show is often wildly funny, and it shares many of the second season's strengths.
The Simpsons: Season Four
Why it's the best: Having mastered the art of the first-act fake-out in season three, the writers indulged their new storytelling confidence and started getting a little weird, in episodes where they give the town of Springfield a monorail, as well as an annual festival dedicated to beating the crap out of snakes.
Best single episode: "Krusty Gets Kancelled," which riffs on pop-culture fads and talk-show wars, and features guest appearances by Johnny Carson and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Runner-up season: The aforementioned season three. No, five! Six! Seven! Two!
Gilmore Girls: Season Three
Why it's the best: Love triangles, high-school angst, grown-up relationship turmoil… fire! This one had it all, and it found the best balance between the trademarked Amy Sherman-Palladino crackerjack dialogue and the less-commented-upon-but-still-trademarked Palladino warmth-without schmaltz—all without ignoring the fact that life can be really hard sometimes.
Best single episode: "A Tale Of Poes And Fire," in which an Edgar Allan Poe convention spills into town. This installment begins kookily, then ends with a character reversing a plan she's held her entire life. It's disarmingly funny until it suddenly turns moving. Call it the Palladino touch.
Runner-up season: The fifth season finds Rory coming into her own as a character, and not just a bright Everygirl, as she balances college and a boyfriend who may not deserve her yet. Meanwhile, Lorelai wrestles with an adult relationship that might just be for keeps. (The sixth season is pretty great too, until… well, fans know the moment.)
The Andy Griffith Show: Season Three
Why it's the best: Andy's string of girlfriends finally comes to an end when he meets standoffish schoolteacher Helen Crump, and the supporting actors each get multiple showcases for their talents, like "Class Reunion," where Barney feels nostalgic for high school, and "The Bed Jacket," where Aunt Bee expects something nice for her birthday and doesn't get it.
Best single episode: "Man In A Hurry," arguably the highlight of the whole series, in which a harried businessman breaks down in Mayberry and has to adjust to the town's slower pace. Sitcom or not, the last shot of this episode is just stunningly beautiful.
Runner-up season: It's hard to go wrong with any season between two and five—and even the non-Don Knotts color years are better than people recall—but it's also hard to ignore season four, which contains the one-two punch of "The Sermon For Today" and "Opie The Birdman."
Star Trek: Season Two
Why it's the best: While the first season undoubtedly contained some of the series' best episodes ("The Devil In The Dark," "The City On The Edge Of Forever") the second season takes the prize for consistency. Characters deepen, humor comes more easily, and the show gets comfortable, trying out even bigger ideas than in its freshman year.
Best single episode: The season-opening "Amok Time," (a.k.a. That One Where Spock Goes Into Heat) challenges everything we thought we knew about Mr. Spock, in the process redefining and intensifying the friendship between the show's lead characters.
Runner-up season: Between season one and the put-it-out-of-its-misery-already season three, there's really no contest.
Cheers: Season Four
Why it's the best: Because the on-again/off-again Sam-and-Diane romance was at its most entertaining low point, with Sam mad at her for running off to Europe, Diane mad at him for not showing up in time to stop her, and Frasier livid at everyone due to his new lot as a lovesick barfly. All this plus the introduction of Woody, and a season-ending three-parter that climaxes with one walloping cliffhanger.
Best single episode: "Second Time Around," which begins with a disastrous first date between Frasier and an uptight fellow psychiatrist played by Bebe Neuwirth (so good that she became a semi-regular the following season), and ends with him chasing after one of Sam's good-time girls, played by Jennifer Tilly.
Runner-up season: The best of the underrated post-Shelley Long run, season eight, which contains the saga of Rebecca and her British billionaire lover, played with bewitching smarm by Roger Rees.
The X-Files: Season Three
Why it's the best: The alien-invasion "mythology" that drove the central plot turned truly compelling in season three. Old mysteries deepened, and new wrinkles like the creepy black oil delivered the requisite chills. Better yet, it seemed like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle of secret truths were falling slowly into place. (A couple of seasons later, the nagging feeling that series creator Chris Carter was just making it all up as he went along became inescapable.) Better still, though, were the rich, funny, multilayered contributions of writer Darin Morgan, including…
Best single episode: "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'," featuring Charles Nelson Reilly as a Whitley Strieber-like crackpot author whose tawdry exposé of two teens' alien abduction is told repeatedly, dizzyingly, and hilariously, from several different perspectives. A comedy Philip K. Dick would have loved.
Runner-up season: Season four, with the banned-from-uncensored-broadcast "Home" (the one with the inbred hillbillies), Mulder's search for the "black cancer" in Russia, and Scully's own deathly disease—diagnosed by a cancer-eating monster apparently inspired by a Nirvana line.
Friends: Season Three
Why it's the best: Because the show's soapy plotlines start churning fast here, culminating in Ross and Rachel's painful breakup, Monica's abortive relationship with a millionaire, and Joey's unrequited crush on a fellow thespian. Friends burned through stories too quickly, but at least there was always something going on.
Best single episode: "The One The Morning After," in which Ross and Rachel hash out the end of their relationship while the rest of the gang eavesdrops from another room. It isn't Cassavetes, but the sting of unforgivable betrayal still plays as painfully true and surprisingly funny.
Runner-up season: Season four, where the boys and girls switch apartments, and they all wind up in London (except for Phoebe, pregnant with her brother's triplets).
NewsRadio: Season Four
Why it's the best: The creators shook up the office's dynamic, temporarily putting Lisa in charge instead of Dave, and briefly introducing an officious efficiency expert, hilariously played by a pre-Gilmore Girls Lauren Graham. Also, by the fourth season, the show had refined the character-running-through-a-static-frame gag into sublime comic art.
Best single episode: A toss-up between "Security Door," a tour-de-force farce in which Dave goes nuts trying to get employees to use their keycards, and "The Public Domain," in which he tries to cut down on all the "cunning schemes and crazy capers" on the day that Bill decides to try out his new satirical musical act.
Runner-up season: Season three, home of the series' finest half-hour, "Complaint Box."
The Shield: Season Three
Why it's the best: Because the Strike Team's decision to rob the Armenian mob at the end of season two sets up an extended recasting of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, with each crooked cop looking over the other's shoulder, right up to the nail-biting finale. Meanwhile, while running for city council, the unit's captain (well-played by Benito Martinez) is raped at gunpoint by a gangster, setting up plot complications and character kinks that continue to play out.
Best single episode: "Cracking Ice," where the previously infallible detective Wyms makes a mistake that leads to an undercover cop getting sexually assaulted. Hey, this show doesn't play around.
Runner-up season: The recently completed season five, not yet on DVD, in which an Internal Affair investigator (played with nutty menace by Forest Whitaker) leans on the cleanest member of the Strike Team, setting a trap that springs unexpectedly in the cliffhanger finale.
Angel: Season Three
Why it's the best: It's the season where the mega-plot finally kicked in and bulldozed over much of the whiny angst that was always the worst part of Angel's character. From Darla's pregnancy to Connor's birth, kidnapping, and return, more of moment happens in this season than in any other, and the series coheres into an almost novelistic experiment.
Best single episode: Most of the episodes from this season don't stand out on their own, as they're all just segments of a much larger story; "Offspring" is particularly significant and plot-packed, though it can't compete with, say, the comic throwaway "Smile Time" from the much sloppier season five.
Runner-up season: Season four. More mega-plot, the return of Faith, and an Angelus who's actually scary for once. Plus, "Awakening" is a terrific mind-fuck, and Spike hasn't yet been awkwardly imported from Buffy.
M*A*S*H: Season Nine
Why it's the best: Throughout its 11-season run, M*A*S*H moved steadily away from the screwball comedy of its initial seasons, and into primetime-drama mode. By season nine, the series was running short on new ideas, but the quest for something innovative to try resulted in some of its most interesting episodes, including "Letters" and "No Laughing Matter."
Best single episode: "The Life You Save," in which stuffy Major Winchester becomes obsessed with death after a close call. More than any other M*A*S*H episode, this one uses the isolating fears of combat zones to speak to the isolating fears of all humanity in the face of the great unknown. Pretty damn ambitious for a sitcom.
Runner-up season: Season seven features terrific episodes like "The Party," "Preventative Medicine," and "C*A*V*E," plus one of the best mixes of comedy and dramatic innovation. Still, it's tempting to call out the significantly weaker season 11 largely on the strength of the heartbreaking series finale.
Alias: Season Two
Why it's the best: Two words: Lena Olin. As Sydney's diabolical mother, she spends most of the season doing a Hannibal Lecter routine under CIA custody, parsing out intel while toying brilliantly with her daughter's emotions. Where the first season features a lot of self-contained episodes, the second is structured so each episode functions as a piece in the grand design, which ends in one of those rare mind-blowing twists that hold up under close examination.
Best single episode: "Phase One." A blazing-hot Super Bowl ad with star Jennifer Garner in black lingerie was merely the opening to an episode that blows the lid off SD-6 and catapults the show in a completely different direction.
Runner-up season: Season one, which introduced a tight, entertaining, and exceptionally well-produced weekly thriller before the series grew too rote and grossly implausible in later seasons.