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1. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
“This is not unlike another famous Thanksgiving episode,” Linus Van Pelt says near the end of 1973’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. The blanket-toting philosopher of the Peanuts set is trying to draw parallels between a disastrous holiday meal—which Peppermint Patty noisily interrupts with objections to her plate full of toast, pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans—and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship Of Miles Standish, but there’s some sly television commentary in that statement as well. Every year, TV families gather around their tables in the spirit of giving thanks, but just as often, the festivities are interrupted by turkeys refusing to thaw, guest lists altered at the last minute, or, in the case of Peppermint Patty’s tirade, an 8-year-old’s inability to assemble a traditional Thanksgiving spread on practically no notice. Not that Patty has any right to complain, since she invites herself (and Marcie and Franklin) over to the Browns’ house for dinner before ol’ Chuck can tell her he has other plans. There isn’t a turkey in front of her—though one’s waiting for the kids at Charlie Brown’s grandmother’s condominium—but Peppermint Patty is taking part in a holiday ritual all the same.
2. The Bob Newhart Show, “Over The River And Through The Woods”
Robert Hartley, Ph.D. was television’s consummate straight man for 142 episodes during the ’70s—but the holidays are a time to let even the wryest of wry characters cut loose. Although the improvised liquid Thanksgiving enjoyed by the men of The Bob Newhart Show in “Over The River And Through The Woods” (main course: Von Krueger’s, “the Scotch aged in Styrofoam kegs”) merely takes Newhart’s character to freshly droll heights. At the end of the night, “Durr Bob Hartley” (“Durr: ‘D,’ ‘r,’ period”) is stuck with a $93.80 Chinese takeout bill—most of the total going toward the Cantonese specialty known colloquially as “moo goo goo goo.” The good doctor wouldn’t be troubled by a headache or MSG if he didn’t care so much for his patients, for whose benefit he sticks around Chicago while wife Emily visits her family in Seattle. That decision has a transformative effect on the shrink and his most regular visitor: Perpetual sad-sack Elliot Carlin ends up the life of the four-man party, keeping Bob partially grounded in his straight-man roots with a series of drunken, increasingly illogical knock-knock jokes.
3. Cheers, “Thanksgiving Orphans”
Judging by its reputation, Cheers’ fifth-season Thanksgiving episode is merely a 20-minute appetizer to flying side dishes and Vera Peterson taking a pie in the face. But as fun as those final moments are, “Thanksgiving Orphans” is a front-to-back great episode of the definitive sitcom of the ’80s, one that hits the holiday’s standby TV beats without cheapening the bonds among the surrogate family that typically gathers around Sam Malone’s bar. The last-minute shindig at Carla’s threatens to go south after an afternoon of drinking and an entrée whose “little pop thing” refuses to budge, but with tempers flaring, the hostess devises a serving method that unites the Cheers gang with a mortar of mashed potatoes, yams, and cranberry sauce. There are tidier ways to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner, but few as effective at dispelling the notion that Sam et al. are “a bunch of pathetic dropouts.” That goes for the food fight as well as the episode that contains it.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Turkey Day ’95”/“Show 701T: Night Of The Blood Beast”
In the early ’90s, Comedy Central ginned up its own yearly Thanksgiving observance by turning its airwaves over to mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester on the fourth Thursday of every November. The 1995 edition of the unofficial MSTie holiday known as “Turkey Day” operated as something of a daylong season première for Mystery Science Theater 3000’s seventh season, with Forrester entertaining Thanksgiving guests invited to Deep 13 by the late TV’s Frank—who ascended into Second-Banana Heaven at the end of season six—while revisiting some of his most devious attempts to subjugate the world’s population through crappy cinema. The true guest of honor, however, is Forrester’s mother Pearl, who makes her entry into MST3K continuity via the special Turkey Day edition of Show 701. Mrs. F foists the Roger Corman cheapie Night Of The Blood Beast upon the crew of the Satellite Of Love, then fulfills the presumed wishes of many of the mothers in the show’s audience by knocking out her fellow visitors—save for Michael J. Nelson’s toothy, leering approximation of A&E fixture Jack Perkins—with her special “turkey surprise.”
5. Gossip Girl, “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!”
In a refreshing break from the show’s then-fledgling formula, “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!” benches Gossip Girl’s namesake narrator—whose Turkey Day tradition involves keeping her nose out of “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” for 24 hours—allowing the episode to warp time and detail two tumultuous Thanksgivings in the space of a single hour. In the present day, guest lists are jumbled, past transgressions uncovered, and previously unmentioned eating disorders evoked. But all this truth-telling over dinner at the Waldorf, Humphrey, and Archibald family tables leads to a happier, more genuinely enjoyable holiday than the one glimpsed in rose-colored flashbacks. Honesty puts a kink in everyone’s dinner plans, but it also leads to the affectionate sight of Serena and Eric Van Der Woodsen sharing an unfussy, greasy-spoon Thanksgiving with their mother—a stark contrast to mother and son ending the previous year’s celebration by scooping up a sozzled Serena from her best friend’s living room. Gossip Girl misses some juicy secrets on her day off, but in spite of all the chaos, there isn’t much misbehavior to relay to her followers.
6. Buffy The Vampire Slayer, “Pangs”
Plenty of television episodes feature unwanted guests forcing Thanksgiving hosts to change up their plans at the last minute. But how many of those shows feature the undead trying to spike the cranberry sauce? So it is with Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s fourth-season episode “Pangs.” On one front, the vampire Spike, having recently been released from The Initiative’s secret base, seeks refuge in Giles’ apartment after all other options are closed to him. On another, vengeful spirits of the Chumash tribe seek revenge on the descendants of the settlers that killed them centuries earlier. Poor Xander gets mystical syphilis instead of delicious holiday stuffing, at least until the Scooby Gang can vanquish the tribesmen. Most importantly, “Pangs” asserts that, when it comes to Thanksgiving offerings, turkey is so passé. Why have turkey when you can have delicious bear instead?
7. Friends, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away”
As people grow up, their friends often become their second family, which is a central theme on Friends—and its first major holiday episode is where it starts to prove it. With everyone’s usual plans derailed—Rachel unable to afford a ski weekend, Ross and Monica abandoned by their vacationing parents, Joey slandered by an unfortunate free-clinic ad—Monica volunteers to host Thanksgiving dinner herself. Unfortunately, the sighting of a loose Macy’s parade balloon leads to everyone being locked out of the apartment, leading to a burned dinner and an agitated shouting match. The holiday appears ruined, until a sighting of favorite neighbor Ugly Naked Guy celebrating the holiday with an Ugly Naked Girl brings back the feelings of togetherness, and a new dinner is assembled. Even the virulently anti-Thanksgiving Chandler admits this bare-bones version is the best holiday he’s ever had, and the gang cheerfully looks forward to replicating it in the future. (“Here’s to a lousy Christmas!” “And a crappy New Year!”) Friends got a lot of mileage out of Thanksgiving as the years passed, but the simplicity of this first gathering—grilled-cheese sandwiches instead of three kinds of potatoes—made it one of the show’s best.
8. The Simpsons, “Bart Vs. Thanksgiving”
Sometimes, it isn’t togetherness or loneliness that leads a character to improvise a Thanksgiving, but pure old-fashioned stubbornness. After unrepentantly destroying Lisa’s feminist centerpiece and being sent to his room without dinner, Bart ventures out for his own holiday experience, heading to Springfield’s literal wrong side of the tracks. Revived after an ill-advised stop at the blood bank, Bart joins two local homeless men to attend the local rescue mission’s holiday dinner, where he can’t believe his good fortune: “Twelve big ones and free grub to boot—viva Skid Row!” However, between Kent Brockman’s utterly dismissive news broadcast (“We’d like to sweep these people into the gutter, or if they’re already in the gutter, to some other out-of-the-way place”) and the dinner’s attendees heading not home, but to alleys and doorways, the luster of Bart’s solo holiday quickly gives way to shame. Giving his blood-bank money to his pleasantly surprised new friends, Bart heads back to “this family I kinda hang out with,” where his newfound empathy leads him to make a sincere apology to Lisa. The gesture opens up one more impromptu Thanksgiving dinner: A late-night table of sandwiches that Homer regards, in his inimitable way, as a symbol of “one more crack at togetherness.”
9. Beverly Hills 90210, “The Kindness Of Strangers”
The denizens of Beverly Hills 90210 are a bunch of spoiled, self-obsessed, and suspiciously weathered 1-percenters, but Minnesota transplant Brandon Walsh is a do-gooder diamond in the Rodeo rough. Bran is so good, in fact, that he doesn’t think twice about engaging in one of TV’s hoariest holiday tropes: inviting his wayward friends and a random homeless person over for Thanksgiving dinner. Season three’s “The Kindness Of Strangers” finds the 90210 area code beset by a torrential rainstorm, and the Walsh house plagued by a leaky roof. That doesn’t stop Brandon from bringing home Jack Canner, a Dumpster-diving Gulf War vet who may or may not end up teaching the gang a thing or two about the plight of the homeless and the horrors of war. But while Donna is taken with Canner’s story (“So you’re homeless, huh?”), not everyone is impressed: Turns out perpetually suspendered patriarch Jim Walsh was a conscientious objector back in the ’Nam days, which didn’t sit well with his Marine father. But old daddy issues are eventually swallowed like so much cranberry sauce when Jim learns to relax and Canner fixes the Walshs’ roof. Everyone wins, and the gang can get back to shopping, gossiping, and wondering whether Dylan will end up with Brenda or Kelly.
10. The O.C., “The Cold Turkey” (2006)
Like every other event in Josh Schwartz’s vision of Orange County, California, Thanksgiving dinner has a way of falling apart entertainingly. In season one’s “The Homecoming,” it takes Alexi Murdoch and takeout Chinese to save an overcooked feast, and even then, everyone pairs off by how much they can tolerate one another. Season four’s Thanksgiving goes in the opposite direction: After returning from an ill-fated murder bender in Mexico, the Cohens view the holiday as a chance to refortify their relationships. However, their bonding event keeps getting crashed by a whole town of outcasts: Taylor, hiding out in Seth’s room from her dragon mother and surprise husband; Summer, back from a couple of months at Brown with a newfound sense of righteousness and a bunch of homeless men; and the Cooper-Nichol-Coopers, Kaitlin and Julie, fresh off some bad decisions in the wake of Marissa’s death. Meanwhile, Ryan is running around town trying to murder Volchok, Sandy is trying to protect them both, and Summer is growing apart from Seth. With Thanksgiving in danger, Scottish singer-songwriter Murdoch once again plays 21st-century Orpheus, and cooler heads prevail. For the first time, Ryan shows compassion, Julie shows contrition, and Kirsten shows she can actually cook at a Thanksgiving all about open arms.
12. Everybody Loves Raymond, “No Fat”
In this health-conscious holiday episode of the biggest domestic sitcom of its day, Raymond’s mother Marie becomes concerned about her cholesterol intake, and with encouragement from her daughter-in-law, decides to make the ultimate sacrifice: She forgoes the satisfaction of making her legendary Thanksgiving dinner and springs a tofu turkey on the family. The comic highlight of the episode consists of watching each of the starving Barones take a turn at trying to choke down a mouthful of the jiggly horror. This touching scene is interrupted by the arrival of a delivery man with the proper Thanksgiving meal Raymond ordered for himself, intending to enjoy it in secret after paying his respects at his parents’ house. After the traditional holiday round of recriminations and apologies, Raymond shows support for his mother’s diet by spurning the actual turkey and dressing. But the real holiday dinner comes later, in Raymond’s kitchen in the middle of the night, when all of the characters sneak in to raid the refrigerator.
13. B.C.: The First Thanksgiving (1973)
The other long-running, influential daily comic strip from a cartoonist who sometimes wore his Christianity on his sleeve, Johnny Hart’s B.C. never developed into the TV franchise Charles Schulz’s Peanuts did, and this animated holiday special shows why. Expanded to fill a half-hour time slot, the spare, gag-cartoonist style provides no emotional involvement in the characters, and not much ground for developing any kind of story. The cartoon idly kicks the dust around in circles for almost half its running time before arriving at its seasonal hook: The cavemen are planning a big communal dinner of stone soup, and need to catch and kill the turkey who always shows up in the comic strip around Thanksgiving. They pursue the bird for most of the rest of the program. But while the turkey isn’t exactly a Mensa candidate himself, he outwits them, forcing them to enjoy their Thanksgiving rocks unflavored.
15. Felicity, “Thanksgiving”
Unable to face her parents after a traumatic assault, Julie decides to spend Thanksgiving in the dorms, otherwise inhabited only by Noel and his visiting girlfriend Hanna (a pre-Alias Jennifer Garner). Felicity joins her at the last minute when she realizes her friend is hurting, unceremoniously bagging on the Thanksgiving invitation she won back from her parents with such difficulty in a previous episode. The twist in this tale of impromptu Thanksgiving is that, far from avoiding holiday dinner plans only to have them come together unbidden, Felicity and Julia fully intended to have a cozy holiday dinner for just the two of them, but are just too dumb about life to make it happen. They wander around earnestly in their sweats, trying to cook real food in microwaves and bathroom sinks, and haven’t even managed to secure a bird. Luckily, other friends with similarly bad holiday luck join them on their island of lost children, creating a new sense of family for people on the scary precipice of adulthood. The first awkward leap into hosting their own dinner party, making the girls feel at times grown-up, yet also stuck at the kiddie table, mirrors the larger dramas Felicity and Julie experience over the course of the episode and season.
16. How I Met Your Mother, “Blitzgiving”
“I was hosting my very first Thanksgiving, and I wanted it to be special.” With those words, Ted Mosby dooms himself to holiday disaster even before “the curse of the Blitz” lights upon him. Named for a previously unmentioned college pal (played by Lost’s Jorge Garcia) doomed to miss out on everything cool, Blitz passes his curse on to Ted when Ted leaves the bar early to brine the turkey. He wakes up Thanksgiving morning to a trashed apartment, Robin in Paul Stanley face paint, an inside joke he doesn’t get (“The Gentleman!”), and his current nemesis/obvious love-interest-to-be Zoey, now the gang’s best pal, asleep in his bathtub. And while viewers only get glimpses of the night’s debauchery, it’s soon discovered that not only have the revelers busted Ted’s oven, they used all his butter greasing up Lily and sliding her down the corridor. Thus, in a series of hijinks as overstuffed as Ted’s experimental TurTurkeyKey (a turkey… stuffed with a turkey), the gang attempts ad hoc Thanksgivings across New York, only to be foiled at every turn: Barney’s stove is just a cardboard model, there was an explosion at the sewage-treatment plant by Marshall and Lily’s, etc. They end up at Zoey’s so she and Ted can spar(k) with each other, and everyone can learn the true meaning of the holiday. Of course, by the episode’s end, the curse is reversed (after briefly passing through Barney), and Garcia regains the mantle of the Blitz again. The goodwill of a makeshift Thanksgiving episode only extends so far to a guest star.
17. Hey Arnold!, “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”
By plot alone, “Arnold’s Thanksgiving” isn’t revolutionary. Two kids pine for the perfect Thanksgiving, with a cordial, grateful family that calmly passes the yams between compliments. This storybook holiday is far from Arnold and Helga’s reach: She’s being raised by Bob the Beeper King, and Arnold’s grandmother is so far gone, she thinks Thanksgiving Day is the Fourth of July. So when both skip out on their respective family sideshows and run into each other, they know this isn’t the day to hold onto playground grudges. They recognize the deep disappointment in each other, and they overcome it together. Hey Arnold! sparkled most when it united Arnold and the playground bully who secretly loved him in a common cause, and there’s no worthier TV objective than finding the meaning of a holiday. It isn’t the show’s splashiest episode, but the beauty of Hey Arnold! was finding true sentiment in the gross little details. The episode’s highlight is a quiet one: Helga and Arnold on the pier, commiserating and watching the garbage float by. They end up realizing they have plenty to be thankful for, even their strange families, but for a day, they’re also thankful for each other—even if one’s a stupid football-head.
18. Gilmore Girls, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving”
The world of Gilmore Girls and its setting of Stars Hollow, Connecticut is tailor-made for celebrating Thanksgiving, what with the copious amounts of New England foliage and platoon of wacky neighbors happy to throw their doors open at the slightest provocation. Which is perhaps why the show’s only Thanksgiving episode, season three’s “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving,” gets so chaotic. In an effort to satisfy their myriad friends and family, Lorelai and Rory end up shuttling between four dinners: a Christ-and-Tofurky affair thrown by Lane’s strict Korean mother; a cramped, awkward stop-in with Luke and Jess at the diner; a raucous, drunken deep-fryer festival on Sookie’s front lawn; and the patrician Hartford observance of the elder Gilmores. It’s a perfect showcase for Gilmore Girls’ skill at lurching from oddball small-town comedy to dysfunctional family dramedy and back. Technically, nothing goes wrong, since the Gilmores manage to shove four meals into their stomachs, but there are awkward social rules to navigate at each occasion, and it wouldn’t be Gilmore Girls (or Thanksgiving, really) without Lorelai blowing up at her parents, a fine capper to a fine episode.
19. Garfield’s Thanksgiving
Presumably, Jon Arbuckle and his pets, Odie and Garfield, are going to celebrate Thanksgiving anyway, but they don’t seem too enthused about it. Jon hasn’t taken the turkey out of the freezer the day before the big day, and vet Liz puts Garfield on a diet at the least convenient time. Jon, however, has ulterior motives in taking Garfield to the vet: He wants to invite Liz over for a Thanksgiving date, with dinner at his place. (Since she won’t be seen with him in public, Liz eventually accepts, albeit reluctantly.) Once their plans change, Jon decides to get the meal together at the last minute, not realizing how complicated things will be until it’s almost too late. Garfield indicates he should call in Garfield-holiday-special superhero Grandma Arbuckle, who whips up a wonderful meal and sneaks out the back, all in time for Jon to take credit for being a much better cook than he is, and win a kiss from Liz. Garfield’s Thanksgiving is the weakest of the Garfield holiday specials, but it’s also the only Thanksgiving special involving an old woman wielding a chainsaw.
20. King Of The Hill, “Happy Hank’s Giving”
Airline travel the day before Thanksgiving is a pain in the ass at the best of times, but “Happy Hank’s Giving” pushes that to dizzying extremes. Sleeting rain kicks off the episode’s travel day from hell, but all the characters are the architects of their own miseries: Hank refuses to brush aside routine security questions for fear of committing perjury, Peggy’s distrust of the airline’s promises and reliance on third-hand rumors leave the Hills even worse off, Kahn upgrades himself into everything except a flight that actually takes off, and so on. Meanwhile, Bobby becomes a meat-crazed lunatic, forced to subsist on the meager selection of the airport food court. The delays stretch into Thanksgiving proper, and an encounter between Hank’s propane-smoked turkey and the bomb squad robs the family of its last chance of making it to Montana. But after 20 minutes of the characters at their very worst, Hank and company rally to hold an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner in the deserted terminal, armed with nothing more than a stick of gum, a big bag of airline peanuts, some leftover pizza—and a mini-canister of propane, which once again saves the day as Hank uses it to reheat the pizza. After all, as long as Hank spends Thanksgiving with family, friends, and sweet lady propane, what more could he possibly need?