If there is one thing you can assuredly count on from any given Thanksgiving-themed episode of television, it’s that something—or, more likely, everything—will go horribly, horribly wrong. Turkeys will burn, families will feud, parade floats will burst, or food will end up on somebody’s face. And then, there is another thing you can count on: Whatever goes wrong, and however bad it starts to look, the characters you know and love will get over it. They’ll find something in their strange sitcom lives to be happy about—to be thankful for. There will be hugging, and there will be feasting, even if it turns out a little differently than everyone (besides the audience) expected.
Thanksgiving episodes are predictable in their goofy, pseudo-unpredictability, where everything goes wrong and in the end everyone comes lovingly together anyway. They work because they remind us, amidst all the stress of the holidays, to be grateful for our imperfections, for our failed attempts, for our dysfunctional families and our ragtag bunches of friends
So to help you get in the spirit, here are six examples of shows that follow the formula and feed our appetite for holiday bad-turned-goodness. Go on, gorge yourself.
Friends — “The One Where Underdog Got Away”
Friends is well known and loved for its yearly Thanksgiving specials, so this season one episode may not be the best or your favorite, but it is the one that sets the precedent. The group spends the holiday together for the first time, mostly as a result of their previous plans with each of their families not working out. Monica’s would-be perfect meal gets ruined when the gang gets locked out of the apartment after going up to the roof to watch an escaped Underdog parade float fly loose over the city. Like many classic Thanksgiving stories, it ends with the group accepting their failed attempt at proper holiday and enjoying what they end up with instead—in this case, a feast of grilled cheeses, which, especially for vegetarian Phoebe and Thanksgiving-loathing Chandler, doesn’t seem all that bad.
Cheers — “Thanksgiving Orphans”
Sitcoms today have largely moved away from the traditional family-centered domestic setting to focus instead on workplaces or friend groups, so the “friendsgiving” take on Thanksgiving seems has become pretty common. But back in the ’80s, Cheers was one of the first shows to take this approach to the holiday, in this episode where Carla gets talked into hosting dinner for the bar staff and bar-goers who haven’t got anywhere else to go. What’s lovely about Cheers, though, is that the group of friends isn’t strictly speaking a “friend group”—they aren’t roommates, or inseparable long-time buddies, but just a bunch of misfits with separate lives united by their favorite watering hole. On this rare day away from the bar, the crew gets a little closer together as Thanksgiving dinner devolves into a food fight. Also, Diane dons a pilgrim outfit for the duration of the episode, and looks utterly ridiculous.
How I Met Your Mother — “Slapsgiving”
This episode is the first in the “Slapsgiving” series that the show maybe takes a little bit too far, but back when it started, it was such a strange and funny addition to the usual holiday mishaps: Lily as first-time Thanksgiving host stressing over a dinner that no one helps her with, an unwelcome guest in Robin’s new beau, and post-breakup Ted and Robin hooking up the night before to make things awkward for everyone. The overarching premise of friends trying to start a new tradition together is pretty standard, but the slap in all its grandeur, built up by the countdown that haunts Barney and celebrated in its completion with Marshall’s Slapsgiving song, “You Just Got Slapped,” makes the episode altogether unforgettable.
New Girl — “Parents”
In an utterly adorable take on the “parents come to dinner” trope we so often see in sitcoms about young adulthood, Jess apparently intends to juggle two Thanksgivings, one each with her divorced mother and father, but actually is secretly setting them up in a “parent trap.” Whether she’s recreating the original of the Lindsay Lohan remake is yet to be determined, but the scenario provides a lot of laughs, alongside a sub-plot where Schmidt and his cousin, also Schmidt, compete to prove their manliness and to earn the title of the one true Schmidt.
Bob’s Burgers — “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal”
The first of a few excellent Thanksgiving episodes on an amazing animated show, “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” features a hilarious and unique plot in which the Belchers, minus Bob, pretend to be their landlord Fischoeder’s family to help him win over an old flame with a penchant for home-wrecking, while a lonely Bob pretends to be Fischoeder’s cook, drinks a little too much absinthe on the job, and gets a little weirdly close to Lance, the turkey he’s cooking. It ALSO features a catchy Thanksgiving song memorable enough to be covered by non-animated band The National, not to mention an absolutely flawless “My Neighbor Totoro” hallucination sequence.
Hey Arnold — “Arnold’s Thanksgiving”
OK, I’ll grant you that Hey Arnold! is not exactly a sitcom, but this holiday episode has all the silly, heart-warming goodness of one. The kids at P.S. 118 put on a Thanksgiving pageant written by their teacher Mr. Simmons that shows them all just what the perfect holiday dinner should look like. Of course, real Thanksgiving doesn’t play out quite the same way for the kids—especially Helga, who feels ignored next to her perfectionist sister and fights with her family, and Arnold, whose crazy grandma leads the rest of the boarding house family in celebrating the Fourth of July in late November in lieu of the traditional holiday. When both of them run out on their Thanksgivings and run into each other, they decide to crash their teacher’s place for a taste of the perfect Turkey Day from their pageant. But when they find that even the idealistic Mr. Simmons has a messed up holiday, they come to appreciate their own dysfunctional traditions.
What are your favorite Thanksgiving TV specials and episodes? Tweet us at @litdarling let us know!