Our Favorite Thanksgiving TV Episodes
If we were handing out awards for the greatest Thanksgiving episodes of television, then Friends would obviously win more than a few Golden Turkey Legs for Most Prolific Show, Best Use of Celebrity Cameos and Most Memorable Episodes. Bri will have some extra special Friends goodness for you later. But now let’s take a look at some other great episodes for you and yours to enjoy a) with your family b) when you’re hiding out from your family, or c) when you’ve wisely decided to pass on shopping to focus on your turkey and pie long-game.
Family Ties, “No Nukes is Good Nukes”
Once an NBC mainstay and huge hit on Thursday nights, Family Ties the show seemed to disappear after a good decade of syndication. Now that it’s streaming, I recommend it. This was an era where former 60s hippies like Steven and Elyse were faced with the prospects of their children, like Alex P. Keaton, embracing conservatism. The show found the comedy in generational differences. In this episode Steven and Elyse attend a nuclear disarmament protest on Thanksgiving and end up getting arrested. Elyse’s parents initially side with Alex, chiding them for going to a protest. When the couple refuse to sign a waiver promising not to protest again, Elyse’s mom stands up for them, recognizing that freedom of speech is a core value. The family schleps to the jail with Thanksgiving dinner because for this family, politics did not trump actual family ties.
Trivia: Two years later, Alex has a change of heart about signing away his right to priest after he goes to a protest and ends up getting arrested. He too refuses to sign a piece of paper promising not to “act up” again.
Mad About You, “Giblets for Murray”
Another big Thursday night hit for NBC, Mad About You had a very memorable Thanksgiving episode starring one of TV’s great dogs, Murray. Oh, and Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt were there too. This one finds the happy couple trying to please every one of their picky relatives by making several trips to the store to buy their favored foods, like marshmallows and cranberry sauce. Paul and Jamie are busy defending their right to host the dinner their own way right up until Murray eats the turkey, requiring secret missions to the store for more turkey, all of which wind up getting thwarted.
Northern Exposure, “Thanksgiving”
Quirky and good, this CBS hit launched the careers of several actors and writers, most notably Sopranos creator David Chase. Northern Exposure is one of the only shows that ever bothered with Native American storylines. (But see Longmire on Netflix, and the canceled Strange Empire, for some representation.) This episode shows us how the Native Americans of Cicely, Alaska celebrate Thanksgiving: with a Day of the Dead parade, costumes and traditions like throwing tomatoes at white people. It’s an episode full of typical Northern Exposure folksy wisdom and charm as Dr. Joel fumes at being considered white since he’s a Jew, and Chris shares the story of a memorable Thanksgiving he once had while sharing a can of green beans with fellow inmates.
Trivia: On the Sopranos, Chase later created a not-as-smart episode involving Columbus Day protests and the Italians who are offended by them. It was a way too on-the-nose look at identity politics that many viewers thought fell flat.
Gilmore Girls, “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving”
Have you heard that Gilmore Girls is returning? Why not whet your appetite with A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving! In this episode Rory and Lorelai are invited to four Thanksgiving dinners and do what every one of us would do: attend and eat at all four! At the Kim’s, Lorelei must comprehend (and eat) tofurkey; at Luke’s, where there is typical GG banter involving flowers and a vase; at Sookie’s, where everything is deep fried; and at Emily and Richard’s house, where the family drama comes to a head when Lorelai finds out Rory secretly applied to Yale. There’s also a subplot involving Kirk the human and Kirk the Cat. For some of you this entire summary probably sounds like hell, but much like deep fried tofurkey, if you give it a try you might actually like it.
How I Met Your Mother, “Slapsgiving”
How I Met Your Mother managed to break the Friends curse (every show about a group of friends failed mightily in the Friends wake) by becoming a unique hit with its own voice. It also managed to have several memorable Thanksgiving episodes. The funniest is Slapsgiving, which spawned the most amusing ongoing joke on the show – the Slap Bet. Robin Sparkles also appears, which pushes it to a must-watch.
Other HIMYM Thanksgiving episodes include”Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of The Slap” where Barney spends the episode wondering when he is going to get hit with one of his remaining slaps for losing the Slap Bet, and “Belly Full of Turkey,” where Lily attends Thanksgiving with Marshall’s family in Minnesota and wonders just what she is getting herself into.
The West Wing, “Shibboleth” and “Indians in the Lobby”
The West Wing featured some of TV’s finest writing. “Shibboleth” is a great episode of the WW. A boat full of Christians fleeing China arrives in California and President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) has to figure out a creative way to get them into the country without causing an international incident. He and and the asylum seekers share the meaning of Shibboleth in the Bible. Elsewhere, the president’s staff argues over whether to appoint Leo’s controversial sister to a Department of Education post despite her stance against school prayer. Bartlett sends Charlie (Dule Hill) on a seemingly pointless task of finding the best turkey carving knife (because in the end he is bestowing the Bartlett family knife, which was owned by Paul Revere, on Charlie). The President has to pardon a turkey, which everyone treats as the ridiculous tradition it is. Meanwhile press secretary CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) has to spend time with the two turkeys vying for the pardon, Eric and Troy, who she immediately wants to save.
“Indians in the Lobby” is notable for an infamous call to the Butterball Hotline. The setup is President Bartlett obsessing over not being able to go home to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving, so he announces he will be cooking the dinner himself. He won’t stop talking about it, which drives the staff nuts. President Bartlett is later overjoyed to discover the Butterball Hotline! Martin Sheen’s ensuing call with the Hotline is comedy gold. CJ is sent to speak with two Native Americans who have appeared at the White House to talk about public health concerns and treaties the US has violated. She tries in vain to find someone who can help them, in yet another example of the things this show did so well.
These are my highly subjective favorites, but there are lots of other great episodes to pick from, including great ones from Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, and South Park, to name a few.