It’s a time for gratitude, family, football, and increasing your blood pressure.
Thanksgiving day is typically filled with a plethora of television spectacles, starting with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. After that, there are usually a handful of NFL games (you can usually count on games featuring the Cowboys, Lions, and Packers). And one of the major networks will usually play a classic Christmas movie, like It’s a Wonderful Life.
Those are the mainstays. Then there are a whole host of shows who will produce special Thanksgiving episodes. It’s not uncommon that producers/writers on these shows will want to pull out all of the stops. And why not? More people are home watching television than usual; might as well use the opportunity to produce a special episode that will bait audiences into watching more in the future.
As a result, Thanksgiving week has provided some of the most essential television ever crafted. Here are a few examples of the best Thanksgiving episodes in television history.
Cheers (“Thanksgiving Orphans”)
Not only is “Thanksgiving Orphans” one of the great Thanksgiving episodes ever made, many would cite it as one of the best television episodes ever made of any kind. This is mostly due to the hilarious and elaborate food fight sequence, one which has been the standard bearer for all food fight sequences ever since. Filled with the standard wit and beautifully formed relationships expected from Cheers, “Orphans” is a Thanksgiving essential
Seinfeld (“The Mom & Pop Store”)
Plenty of Thanksgiving specials play towards sentimentality, and for understandable reasons. Of course, Seinfeld was famous for stripping away anything that even resembled sentimentality, and that was true even with it’s classic Thanksgiving episode, “The Mom & Pop Store.” Featuring hilarious guest appearances by Bryan Cranston and Jon Voight, “The Mom & Pop Store” is an episode for those who prefer their Thanksgivings to be more on the awkward side.
The West Wing (“Shibboleth”)
Every year, the President of the United States “pardons” a turkey on Thanksgiving. On “Shibboleth,” The West Wing decided to make light of the process, which presents more complications than one would expect. And of course because it’s “The West Wing,” the writers use the episode to elegantly highlight the themes of Thanksgiving the best way it knew how: through exceptional dialogue and genuinely tear-jerking moments.
Grey’s Anatomy (“Thanks for the Memories”)
It’s hardly uncommon for medical professionals to have to work on Thanksgiving. For “Thanks for the Memories,” the Grey’s Anatomy team decided to build an episode around how the doctors at Seattle Grace try to hide from Izzie’s disastrous attempt at a Thanksgiving dinner. “Memories” helped to establish the relationships that would define the series going forward, with its typical balance of sentiment and surprising humor.
The Simpsons (“Bart vs. Thanksgiving”)
The Simpsons has never been famous for being a show that overly indulges in sweetness, but “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” proves to be an exception. Bart runs away after the family is (once again) mad at him. However, after a series of mishaps that land him in trouble, Bart realizes the importance of family. Rarely does the classic cartoon show get tender, but when it does, it is also stuffed with outrageous humor.
Friends (“The One with the Thanksgiving Flashbacks”)
If there’s one show in television history that really perfected the Thanksgiving episode, it would be Friends. They had a Thanksgiving episode every season, and most of them would merit entry on this list. The best, however, was the fifth season’s episode, where each friend explains their worst Thanksgivings. This episode features a series of surprising–and hilarious–revelations, two of which involve dismemberment. And Joey gets his head stuck in a turkey, because of course he does.
The Bob Newhart Show (“Over the River and Through the Woods”)
“Over the River and Through the Woods” is not only widely regarded as one of the best Thanksgiving episodes ever made; it is also Bob Newhart’s personal favorite from the entire series. In this episode, Bob thinks he’s alone for the holiday, that is until a group of his friends show up and start a drinking game. If you have never seen Bob’s drunken attempt at ordering food over the phone, you are simply missing out on one of television history’s funniest moments.
How I Met Your Mother (“Slapsgiving”)
Mother was a subtly innovative show in a number of ways. In fact, for one Thanksgiving episode, the show invented a new holiday: Slapsgiving. The episode highlights Lily and Marshall’s first Thanksgiving dinner as a married couple, where Marshall gets to slap Barney as part of a bet he won. The cast, as always, is uniformly excellent. And the episode benefits from outstanding dramatic tension, thanks to the recent breakup of Robin and Ted, as well as comedic tension in preparation of Marshall’s long-awaited slap.
Gilmore Girls (“A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving”)
While the titular characters were the highlight of the show, one of the reasons Gilmore Girls was an all-time great show was due to its exceptional secondary characters. In “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” the Gilmores find themselves on a hectic schedule, having to bounce back-and-forth between multiple Thanksgiving celebrations. This episode perfectly encapsulates everything wonderful about the series as a whole: the delicate balance of comedy and drama, witty dialogue, and scene-stealing performances from a colorful supporting cast.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Pangs”)
The most controversial entry on this list, “Pangs” is nevertheless a spectacular and unique Thanksgiving episode, courtesy of the spectacular and unique Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike most Thanksgiving episodes, “Pangs” is void of sentimentality, and instead attempts to highlight some of the brutal roots of the holiday. Throughout the episode, Buffy and co. are forced to reckon with the decimation of indigenous American culture when the spirit of a Native American comes into their lives. Thought-provoking and intelligently written, “Pangs” is a vital episode for the holiday.