I'll always add that this incomplete because there are shows like Parenthood and Mad Men that certainly aired great episodes in 2015 but I am further behind in the show and have not seen the episodes that aired this season.
Past Years: 2014 2013 2012 2011
It has been a sad tumble for Modern Family, which was once one of the sharpest shows on TV. It churned out great episodes week after week for a couple years but the recent seasons have seen the episodes much fewer and further between. In fact, this current season has been almost unwatchable. One rare bright spot in 2015 for this show was "Patriot Games," an episode that seemed to be a call back to its earlier, better days. This was thanks mainly to the Cam and Mitch storyline, which found them unhappily participating in a protest with their friends. It was a funny and bold commentary on an era where almost everything gets protested for one reason or another.
How to Get Away with Murder has had an uneven second season, but it had a very satisfying fall finale as it caught up to the time leap seen in the season premiere. In many ways, it was more satisfying than the first season jump, which gave away too much in the episodes leading up to it. This finale was much more twisty and it took another twist in the final seconds that made things very interesting. As Annalise Keating was shouting at her law students to shoot her in this episode, it struck me that Viola Davis brings so much gravitas to this role that even the most ridiculous situations carry a lot of weight. It's quite a testament that a single performer can transform a show from trash to one with high quality moments.
18) Chicago Fire #60 "Call It Paradise" (February 10, 2015)
Chicago Fire is a show that turns out good episodes week after week, but it's quite hard to pick out individual episodes that stand above the rest for a list like this. I didn't want to leave one of my favorite dramas off the list though so I included "Call It Paradise," which is set when Chicago is reaching negative 40 degrees with the wind chill and the emergency services are down. There were several good stories tied to the weather and it was an interesting take on a day in a Chicago winter. But the best and most poignant moment was Chief Boden sadly losing his father. This is more of a character drama than it gets credit for and this episode was a good example.
Two years of dancing around the Jake and Amy storyline came to a head in Brooklyn Nine-Nine's second season finale. After Jake revealed his feelings to Amy in a surprisingly vulnerable moment, the two were paired together as an undercover couple. This only exacerbated the situation but also led to some very funny moments. There were some other very funny storylines including some advancing of the Boyle/Rosa storyline and a cliffhanger ending regarding a new captain at the precinct. But the Jake and Amy moment was reminiscent of Jim and Pam at the end of season two of The Office. Wherever things go with their relationship, I have a feeling this episode will be remembered as a pivotal turning point.
Like Chicago Fire, Blue Bloods is one of my favorite shows but it's very hard to pick out individual episodes that stand above the rest. I went with the intense season finale that had Danny's wife, Linda, shot at the hospital where she works. It tied into a case that affected the other Reagans because the shooter was the son of a friend of Linda's and tied up in a gang. As Linda was being rushed into surgery, the other Reagans had a case to solve and they each played their roles, which sometimes come in conflict with each other. A variation of this story is told a lot on Blue Bloods, but they are always done so well that they feel quite different.
15) Gotham #25 "Rise of the Villains: The Last Laugh" (October 5, 2015)
Gotham has made some notable improvements in its second season and it really had a good thing going for it in the first couple episodes when it seemingly was introducing the Joker with Cameron Monaghan as the delightfully evil Jerome Valeska. It seemed like he might be the next great villain in the series but Gotham shockingly offed him just three episodes into the season with an epic moment at a hospital gala. I didn't quite believe it at first and I'm sure Gotham has a plan, but it was a shame to see such a great character leave so quickly.
Unlike Modern Family, The Middle continues to be an incredibly sweet and funny show even in its seventh season. "Cutting the Cord" was a great look at the struggle for Sue to let go from her parents as she enters college. After coming to her every need at first, Frankie and Mike decide to "cut the cord" for a bit but they did not need to worry because the usually difficult big brother Axl was there for his little sister in a very sweet scene at a pizza parlor.
In an episode that basically took place in real time, Olivia Pope and President Fitzgerald Grant and team have an hour to convince Mellie to go through with a TV interview that will hopefully put the media frenzy about Olivia and Fitz's relationship to bed. Mellie gets more and more difficult in negotiations and there are fits and starts throughout the episode. A seemingly sweet moment between Fitz and Mellie seemed to resolve things only to have it blow up again just minutes later. This unique way of frenzied storytelling only upped the energy level at a show that always moves a million miles a minute.
Law & Order: SVU as well as its parent show has always been at its best when its tackled a very recent and controversial subject in the news. This was a great example of that as the show dealt with the trend of fabulously wealthy parents refusing to vaccinate their children. This episode dealt with a measles outbreak but there were so many layers to it. It happened at a private high school where kids were engaging in bad behavior (and posting it to social media) and they were more exposed because of a parent's refusal to vaccinate. At the same time, a sibling of one of the kids potentially exposed Benson's newly adopted baby to the disease before he could get vaccinated. With such a hot button issue and so many false claims being put out regarding vaccinations in a presidential election season, this was SVU taking a stand.
Parks and Recreation spent its farewell season giving closing arcs and stories to all of the beloved characters of Pawnee. The most satisfying one was the final arc between Leslie Knope & Ron Swanson. Even with so many high quality regular and recurring characters on this show, the Leslie & Ron relationship was always at the heart of this comedy as the two polar opposite characters came to a level of respect and love. That was threatened as the final season began and Leslie and Ron were at odds like they've never been before. Their friends locked them in a room to sort out their differences and we were treated to brilliant performances from Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.
One of the funniest episodes of the year belonged to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where its cast traveled to a beach house for a "detectives only" part with no Captain Holt. In an episode that had elements of a zany 70s sitcom, Captain Holt showed up and they tried to take turns with a boring party upstairs and a rager downstairs in the beach house. That was just one very funny element while the other was a great performance by Melissa Fumero as an increasingly drunk Amy. We got to see the elusive "six drink Amy" who sadly declared she was "so alone." This wasn't an episode that did much to advance an overall storyline but it was just plain funny and that is important for a sitcom.
I'll be honest, this episode wasn't one of my favorites until this summer when I finally saw "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" for the first time. Then, I appreciated this episode so much more and its very clever and very faithful tribute to the classic 1980s movie. From distinct callbacks to the movie (including a memorable cameo by Charlie Sheen) to evoking the sheer joyfulness that is such a part of the movie. The Goldbergs has done several great takes on iconic 1980s movies but this was perhaps the best one yet.
It seems like the best episodes of The Middle often center on the sunny, optimistic middle child, Sue. But as she was about to graduate from high school, she was feeling despondent because of a mistake in the yearbook. Suddenly, the girl who couldn't be fazed by any bad news, was feeling like she hadn't made a difference in her four years of high school. But as she crossed the platform, she learned that she made more of a difference than she ever realized. In a very sweet moment that included a nicely done montage of Sue's high school career, she had a happy ending to one chapter of her life.
Probably the most interesting episode on this list, the pilot to The Last Man on Earth was unlike any other show. Though I am not still watching the show and it ended up going in circles at time, the pilot was a tour de force by Will Forte. As he was seemingly the last person alive on Earth, he traveled to abandoned places in the country and struck up a friendship with athletic equipment. It was such an interesting look at a world that's typically reserved for sci-fi movies but was being done in a comedy. I know they couldn't keep it going and they had to introduce other characters but in some ways, that meant the show couldn't keep up its unique premise. The pilot in and of itself, was the best pilot of 2015.
Mom took a huge leap forward in quality in its second season as it tackled serious subjects head-on and in a way that no other sitcom on TV is doing. It seemed as though Bonnie was finally finding happiness with her ex Alvin back in the picture and moving into the same apartment complex. But then he shockingly died of a heart attack and Mom once again showed us that it's not afraid to upset the fruit basket. Instead of being a comedic relationship between two characters, Mom killed off a likable recurring character and set in motion the downward tailspin Allison Janney's character experienced in the second half of the season. It has handled some very intense plot lines without ever becoming a show with "very special episodes." It's the most realistic sitcom on TV right now.
The only unscripted entry on this list, David Letterman said goodbye to 33 years in late night TV with a star studded finale that captured the very best of Dave. I wrote a longer post on his farewell back in May so I don't need to repeat myself here. Just that this episode was a culmination of a career that changed television forever but it captured him perfectly. It wasn't overly sentimental or overproduced. It was Dave telling a few jokes, talking with the audience, and taking a trip down memory lane. We won't see the likes of David Letterman again but his influence can be felt in varying ways in every late night host.
The funniest Christmas episode of the year belonged to the freshest and funniest new sitcom on TV today. Fresh Off the Boat has had a stellar first year but it's best episode to date was the most recent one. With young Evan questioning the existence of Santa, Jessica goes to cray lengths to try to convince him that Santa is real. When every other option backfires, she insists that Santa as Asian and dresses as Santa herself with a very funny, yet sweet moment between her and Evan. She crawls back into bed with Louis still in her Santa outfit and the very sweet ending becomes a very funny moment when she explains that she has a lot to tell Louis. Constance Wu has quite possibly been the comedic actress of the year and this was a great showcase for her.
Parks and Recreation was always the little show that could. Despite a minuscule audience throughout its run, it managed to last seven seasons and it had a final season that was very interesting but still rewarding for the long time fans. I don't know if I'd say the series finale was among the greatest of all time, but it had so many callbacks to long time fans with a parade of the many wonderful characters that populated Pawnee over the years. Most importantly, all the characters were able to ride off into the sunset doing exactly what we want them to do. We saw that Leslie had a brilliant career in public service, Andy and April finally started a family, and Ron Swanson got to have the job of a lifetime for him. By itself, I'm not sure this episode would rank this high but for all that it stood for and brought back, this long time fan was incredibly satisfied.
Scandal is known for its twisty stories filled with shock and awe but for one episode back in March, it decided to take a stand on a hot button social issue of the day. In a "ripped from the headlines" episode, a 17 year old black man is shot by a white cop. When his father takes firearms and a lawn chair and sits over his dead son's body until justice is served, Olivia Pope is called in to help the police. But she quickly changes sides and supports the father as racial tensions rise. There are many sides to every story and the cop debate in America is no exception. Shows like Blue Bloods have shown the good that cops can do and their value in society. This episode of Scandal was not shaming or blaming cops. It was a tasteful and thought provoking take on a tough subject. It made me wish Scandal did a few more of these "case of the week" shows than they do because this episode towered above the rest in terms of nuance and substance. For a show that's usually a thrill ride, it was a welcome and interesting episode.
Continuing along with the "hot button issue" episodes, Black-ish's stellar second season got off to a brilliant start with an episode that revolved around the "n" word and its use. When eight year old Jack drops the "n" word while singing "Golddigger" at a school talent show, a feisty debate is set off in the Johnson house and at Dre's workplace. The show managed to humorously look at this very complex issue in black culture. They managed to poke fun at the seeming hypocrisy of its use (a board at Dre's work showed people who can use the word - African Americans, Doms, PR, and people who can't - Mexicans, Nigerians (other Africans), and Police Officers, while they were torn on people like Bill Clinton). Yet, the show also really explored the use and had people on both sides of the aisle. It didn't really solve the issue but it showed it wasn't afraid to bring it to the forefront. That's why Black-ish is taking the legacy of The Cosby Show to a new level with an affluent black family and head-on tackling of issues without being a Norman Lear-type "issue" show. After a decent first season, Black-ish has been on fire this season creatively and its premiere is a well-deserving #1 episode of 2015.