1982: Cheers — “Give Me A Ring Sometime” (comedy) Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles. Available on Netflix
Cheers is widely accepted as one of the absolute finest programs to ever air on television, and the pilot just proves that it was fantastic from the start. It’s required viewing that still delights to this day. Once you watch it, it’s impossible to not get invested in Sam and Diane’s romance.
1984: The Cosby Show — “Pilot” (comedy) Written by Ed. Weinberger & Michael J. Leeson. Available on Hulu+
I often go back and forth between Cheers and The Cosby Show for greatest sitcom pilot. Cheers is great, but The Cosby Show introduces TV’s favorite family in such a touching, hilarious, and clever way. Plus, it resulted in everyone wishing Bill Cosby were their dad.
1986: Family Ties — “A, My Name Is Alex” (Parts I and II) (comedy) Written by Gary David Goldberg and Alan Uger. Available on Netflix
“A, My Name Is Alex” is an odd case. It’s a two-part episode focused on Alex’s grieving process after his friend dies. There was much hype surrounding it — both before and after it aired — and it was praised heavily but has since been mocked for its sincerity. Still, it’s a great episode of Family Ties to revisit.
1989: The Wonder Years — “Good-bye” (comedy) Written by Bob Brush. Available on Netflix
The Wonder Years, which is basically Nostalgia: The Show, hit many people hard in the ’80s, but it wasn’t until its third season that it won an Emmy. “Good-bye” focused on Kevin’s dealing with the death of a teacher — maybe it learned from Family Ties that death equals Emmys for sitcoms.
1995: The X-Files — “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” (drama) Written by Darin Morgan. Available on Netflix
How amazing is it that a sci-fi genre show — and specifically an episode about fortune-teller murders — beat out ER, Murder One, and NYPD Blue? “Clyde” is an extraordinary standalone X-Files episode, dealing with questions that go far deeper than just silly supernatural fare and examining the nature of free will.
1998: The Sopranos — “College” (drama) Written by James Manos, Jr. & David Chase. Available on HBO Go
To help choose which two Sopranos episodes to spotlight (out of six wins!), I enlisted the help of our Film Editor, Jason Bailey, who had this to say: “It was only the fifth episode, and the one that really defined the show (and Tony’s) central tension between mafioso and family man (Tony takes his daughter Meadow on a trip to visit colleges, and while doing so he spots a guy who disappeared into witness relocation, so he has to wack the guy without his daughter finding out). It’s really sharp and really funny, and the antihero stuff starts getting really complicated here — there’s some suspense as to whether Tony can get away with killing this guy, and I (for one) found myself rooting for him in a really uncomfortable way.”
1999: The West Wing — “In Excelsis Deo” (drama) Written by Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland. Available on Netflix
It’s so easy to make fun of Aaron Sorkin now, but some episodes of The West Wing are undeniable. “In Excelsis Deo” is one of his finest works, a Season 1 Christmas episode centered on a war veteran and the aftermath of a hate crime. It’s an intense but warm tearjerker, and the only West Wing episode to win the writing Emmy.
1999: Malcolm in the Middle — “Pilot” (comedy) Written by Linwood Boomer. Available on Netflix
I found a strange vindication in Malcolm in the Middle‘s Emmy win because it’s such a oddball gem, a celebration of total dysfunction, and a family sitcom that constantly subverted the norm. It’s about outcasts but managed to win over the Emmys.
2000: The Sopranos — “Employee of the Month” (drama) Written by Mitchell Burgess & Robin Green. Available on HBO Go
Again, I turn to Jason Bailey: “‘Employee of the Month’ is such a deft subversion of expectations. Dr. Melfi gets raped — and that scene is really harrowing and out of nowhere — and you keep waiting, through the whole episode, for her to tell Tony about it and let him go for the guy. But she never does, and the way that they (don’t) pay that off is really masterful; the episode also explores her character’s problematic relationship with who he is and what he does in a way that would come to define that thread of the series in the years to come.”
2000: Malcolm in the Middle — “Bowling” (comedy) Written by Alex Reid. Available on Netflix
“Bowling” is perhaps the best episode of Malcolm in the Middle, and one that still holds up today — I watch it often. It’s a Sliding Doors parody that tells two versions of the same night: one with Hal as chaperone and one with Lois.
2001: 24 — “12:00 a.m. — 1:00 a.m.” (drama) Written by Robert Cochran & Joel Surnow. Available on Amazon
If there’s a drama pilot that immediately hooks you, it has to be 24. It sets up the unique real-time structure of the show, balances multiple storylines, and ends on a cliffhanger that demands you tune in for more.
2001: The Bernie Mac Show — “Pilot” (comedy) Written by Larry Wilmore. Available on Netflix
For my money, The Bernie Mac Show is the most underrated sitcom to ever win an Emmy. Larry Wilmore (The Daily Show) is a gifted comedy writer, and the late Bernie Mac could sell any joke. The pilot, which is uproariously funny and sweet, centers on Bernie’s new life as he begins to take care of his nieces and nephew.
2002: Everybody Loves Raymond — “Baggage” (comedy) Written by Tucker Cawley. Available on Netflix
This Season 7 episode took a plain conflict — Ray and Debra argue over a suitcase left on a staircase — and stretched it into a half-hour of comedy and escalation, proof that sitcoms needn’t be complicated to craft something great.
2003: Arrested Development — “Pilot” (comedy) Written by Mitchell Hurwitz. Available on Hulu+, Netflix, Amazon
There isn’t much to say about Arrested Development that hasn’t been said a million times before, but it’s worth repeating that this pilot is absolutely brilliant, gut-bustingly funny, and has endless rewatch value.
2004: House — “Three Stories” (drama) Written by David Shore. Available on Netflix
On the one hand, I’m still a little upset that an episode of House won over Lost‘s amazing pilot episode, but “Three Stories” is definitely a great hour of television. It’s a Season 1 episode that skips the established formula in favor of a beautifully written examination of Dr. House and his past. And Carmen Electra plays herself.
2005: My Name Is Earl — “Pilot” (comedy) Written by Greg Garcia. Available on Netflix
Another underrated sitcom winner, the pilot for My Name Is Earl succeeded because the humor, charm, and characters were good enough to balance out all the usual exposition that tends to bring down pilot episodes. It was a great show up until the end.
2006: The Office — “Gay Witch Hunt” (comedy) Written by Greg Daniels. Available on Netflix
This Season 3 premiere, about Michael Scott accidentally outing Oscar, is a great example of a sitcom knowing how to mine awkward laughs out of a serious situation without making it feel cheap or offensive. It’s a highlight of the series, a reminder of how good The Office could be during those early years.
2007: Mad Men — “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (drama) Written by Matthew Weiner. Available on Netflix
Mad Men has received plenty of Emmy attention over the years, but it’s only right that we spotlight the episode that started it all. The pilot did the work establishing the characters and setting up a few relationships and twists while remaining intriguing from beginning to end.
2007: 30 Rock — “Cooter” (comedy) Written by Tina Fey. Available on Netflix
The Season 2 finale of 30 Rock is great for a number of reasons — toying with the idea of splitting up Liz and Jack, Kenneth’s attempts to be in the Olympics, Liz’s pregnancy scare, etc. — but let’s be honest: This episode is a winner solely because it has a Dennis Duffy appearance.
2008: 30 Rock — Reunion” (comedy) Written by Matt Hubbard. Available on Netflix
Season 3 of 30 Rock is arguably the best of the series, with the relationships firmly in place and the rapid-fire jokes piling on top of each other, providing punchline after punchline. “Reunion” is great because it tears Liz down a bit as she learns that she wasn’t bullied in high school, but was actually an accidental bully.
2009: Mad Men — “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” (drama) Written by Mtathew Weiner and Erin Levy. Available on Netflix
Aside from having the best title of any Mad Men episode, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” is the episode that blew most viewers away. It’s an hour of life-changing events for nearly everyone at the firm, both in their work and personal lives.
2010: Friday Night Lights — “Always” (drama) Written by Jason Katims. Available on Netflix
It’s a shame it took so long for Friday Night Lights to win an Emmy, but at least it means the show went out on top. The series finale does a stellar job of wrapping up the season’s events — and also succeeds in making everyone watching cry.
2011: Louie — “Pregnant” (comedy) Written by Louis C.K. Available on Netflix
Louie had some stiff competition at the 2011-2012 Emmys — the Girls pilot, the flawless Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” and two Parks and Recreation episodes — but came out victorious with the memorable “Pregnant,” about a visit from his pregnant sister.