Once the clock strikes 12 on the first of November, I can practically feel the urge to switch into “holiday season mode.” Starbucks starts selling those snickerdoodle hot chocolates that I begrudgingly enjoy, Hallmark pumps out one romantic Christmas movie after another and Hobby Lobby sells out of the holiday decor they’ve had on the floor since July. I try not to get swept up in the Christmas spirit until December, but it can be tough, what with all of the mass marketing propaganda, endless Christmas movies and Phoebe Bridgers’ annual emotionally devastating Christmas song cover. Now I promise I’m not a curmudgeonly old grinch. I just hate when everyone blatantly skips over my favorite holiday of the year: Thanksgiving!
In all fairness, other than “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and the “Charlie Brown” specials, there aren’t many beloved Thanksgiving films. But when it comes to TV, no other holiday has got it beat. Frankly, it’s too early for Christmas fluff specials, so here are five shows with Thanksgiving-themed episodes that belong in the television hall of fame.
I had to start with the classic. Could there be a more iconic set of Thanksgiving episodes? Season after season, “Friends” delivered. And I mean, really delivered. Even in its earliest seasons, they set the tone for every tradition to come, from Chandler’s (Matthew Perry, “17 Again”) hatred of the holiday to Monica’s (Courtney Cox, “Scream”) relentless efforts to put dinner together, only for it to spiral into disaster. Widely regarded as a fan favorite, season five’s “The One with All the Thanksgivings,” gives us the infamous scene in which Chandler tells Monica he loves her for the first time … while she’s dancing around with a turkey on her head. My personal favorite is “The One Where Ross Got High” for having that lightning speed round of confessions, Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston, “The Morning Show”) beef dessert trifle and Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc, “Joey”) maternity pants. I’d also be remiss not to mention my mom’s (and a lot of people’s) favorite, “The One with the Rumor,” mostly because it’s “The One with Brad Pitt.”
“Friends” is about “that time in your life when your friends are your family,” so naturally, it’s sappy and sort of sweet that out of all the holidays, Thanksgiving is the one the show is most known for. Besides, what else is there to watch on cable TV on Thanksgiving Day? Football?
“Friends” is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Mmm. Whatcha say.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you probably haven’t watched this scene, which is, no joke, the greatest Thanksgiving dinner scene in television history, featuring each dramatic exit from the table set to Jason Derulo singing in the background, the abrupt cut-aways to Lily (Kelly Rutherford, “Melrose Place”) drinking in the kitchen and Eric’s (Connor Paolo, “Revenge”) deadpan delivery of “Your sweet potatoes are bland.” With this episode, “Gossip Girl” boldly asks the question: How many backstabbing betrayals can one pack into a single three-minute scene? It’s truly a commendable effort as it balances multiple feuds and petty grievances simultaneously; the camera barely catches a break as it jumps from one pair to the next, each line of dialogue sparking a chain reaction of shocking reveals and vexed responses.
“The Treasure of Serena Madre” isn’t just a good Thanksgiving episode but one of the series’ very best. Every character sitting at that table is silently fuming at the person to their left, with Blair (Leighton Meester, “Monte Carlo”) carelessly stirring the pot about matters she’s uninvolved in, Serena (Blake Lively, “A Simple Favor”) flirting with Nate’s (Chace Crawford, “The Boys”) cousin in front of his wife and Rufus (Matthew Settle, “Band of Brothers”) telling dad jokes, which is a crime in and of itself. As always, this show thrives upon chaos and incestuous conflict, and what other holiday quite so perfectly presents itself as a backdrop for long-held resentment and passive-aggressive comments brewing under the surface of a flawless dinner spread? Although none of the show’s other Thanksgiving episodes hold a candle to season three for that theatrical dinner exit sequence alone, the award for most on-theme title goes to “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!” because, duh. Soapy television at its finest.
“Gossip Girl” is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
One thing truly infuriates me about “New Girl” Thanksgiving episodes, and that’s the fact that they’re titled as follows: “Thanksgiving,” “Parents,” “Thanksgiving III” and “Thanksgiving IV.” If you’re going to follow a pattern, have some foresight, please.
Disordered titles aside, every one of these episodes is a cornucopia of chaos. In general, “New Girl” episodes have this zany quality that makes any effort to genuinely describe the plot sound absolutely absurd. But to any casual viewer of the show, it’s really just another day in the loft. For instance, in the first season’s Thanksgiving, they try to speed-thaw a turkey in the dryer, but it catches fire, so they break into their next-door neighbor’s apartment, prepare the whole meal and then promptly discover her dead body in the bathroom. Oh, and the episode ends with Jess (Zooey Deschanel, “(500) Days of Summer”) and Paul (Justin Long, “Tusk”) dancing around in a Best Buy parking lot. And that’s not even close to being the most chaotic episode on the show.
“Parents” centers on Jess trying and miserably failing to “parent-trap” her divorced parents back together. Highlights include Jess stuffing a turkey down a garbage disposal in a fit of rage and Nick (Jake Johnson, “Minx”) bonding with her dad (Rob Reiner, “All in the Family”) and crushing on her mother (Jamie Lee Curtis “Halloween”), because what is Thanksgiving if not a time to explore strange incestuous family matters? Similar shenanigans prevail in season three, as the gang troops out to the wilderness to go camping, only for Jess to end up in the hospital after eating a dead fish and Schmidt (Max Greenfield, “The Neighborhood”) to injure himself after pretending to be a squirrel. Season four is maybe the only time the meal itself goes off without a hitch, yet Schmidt’s affectionately titled “Bangsgiving” doesn’t exactly go as planned and, for some reason, Nick unironically delivers the “Ferris Bueller” monologue as a pep talk.
“New Girl” is currently available to stream on Netflix.
“This Is Us”
In what is perhaps the most sincere entry on this list, Thanksgiving is as much a hallmark of “This Is Us” as the Pittsburgh Steelers and that saying about “something resembling lemonade.” Right from the first season with “Pilgrim Rick,” the Pearsons’ strange holiday traditions like “Police Academy 3,” hotdogs and saltines and Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”) pilgrim hat become firmly embedded within the fabric of the show.
As with much of “This Is Us,” each Thanksgiving episode flips between two timelines, with a classic Pearson story of the past mirroring the dramatic confrontations and emotional turmoil of the present. The flashback portions are imbued with the golden glow of childhood, tinted by the nostalgic simplicity of scenes now only preserved in memory. It embodies the innocence and warmth that the holidays can hold as a kid paired against the coolness that creeps into the Thanksgiving of adulthood, where strained relationships can’t be resolved in a single meal. Emotionally charged parallels are always a poignant staple on this show, but man, do the Thanksgiving ones pack a punch. Leave it to “This Is Us” to project upon Thanksgiving as a time not only for the reconciliation of family and fond memories, but trauma and tears.
“This Is Us” is currently available to stream on Hulu.
Growing up in a very large extended family, we go to multiple Thanksgivings every year, and this was the representation I needed to see. Only the Gilmore girls would attend four separate Thanksgivings in one day and earnestly expect to eat at all of them.
The Gilmores’ preposterous metabolism aside, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” is certainly one for the books. Family drama is practically a prerequisite for proper Thanksgiving TV etiquette, and this episode does not disappoint. Lorelai (Lauren Graham, “Parenthood”) is appalled to find out that Rory (Alexis Bledel, “The Handmaid’s Tale”) has applied to colleges other than Harvard (does she not understand how safety schools work?), and the two of them duke it out over Emily’s (Kelly Bishop, “Dirty Dancing”) impeccably pristine Thanksgiving spread. Of course, it’s not Thanksgiving without a little culinary catastrophe, which arrives in the form of Sookie’s (Melissa McCarthy, “Bridesmaids”) deep-fried turkey nightmare and Lorelai’s encounter with everyone’s favorite vegan alternative, “tofurkey.” The signature Sherman-Palladino quip of the episode goes to Jess (Milo Ventimiglia, “Heroes”) retorting, “It’s getting a little ‘West Side Story’ here, Dean, and I gotta warn you, my dancing skills are not up to snuff.”
“Gilmore Girls” is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Coming together with friends and family to form new bonds and test out old ones is partly what makes this holiday work so extraordinarily well with TV ensembles. It’s a chance to look into character backgrounds and relationship dynamics, to establish friends that function as each other’s family, to induce eruptions of long-bred conflicts and linger in the ramifications. Comedy or drama, soap or serious, Thanksgiving provides the context for some pretty great TV.
Well, it’s a day of thanks, everyone. I’m thankful for you, dear reader. And eternally grateful to be able to write a few words that a few people read. Time to go eat some pie.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.