Last year my little family of four did our traditional twenty-five-person Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ house. It was great—feeling gratitude for our many blessings, eating too much food, and a few awkward conversations. However, since our little family aren’t extroverts, a day of talking and turkey begets tiredness. We got home and I randomly said, “Let’s just veg and watch some Thanksgiving episodes.” And thus, a new tradition was born!
You may not be having your normal Thanksgiving gathering with friends and family this year because of COVID-19. If you’re looking for something different to do, maybe start a fun new tradition of your own and use these episodes as your guide. Below are the shows we watched—some were from series we already loved, but some were from series we had never seen. They are ranked not so much “worst” to “best,” but more like “just OK” to “Thanksgiving-y and pretty funny.”
#6 The Office: “WUPHF.com” (S7.E9)
The Office (American version) is one of my all-time favorite shows, so it saddens me to rank this episode at the bottom of the list. 2020 marks this episode’s tenth anniversary, and it’s not bad, but out of the six we watched it has the least to do with Thanksgiving and provided the fewest laughs. If you’ve never seen The Office, this may be a tough intro—it’s probably a little funnier if you know the characters.
Capitalism is in full swing when Ryan tries to get investors for his WUPHF start-up and Dwight creates “Hay Place” in the parking lot, charging for every single thing. Two important story moments happen in this episode—Angela meets “The Senator” and Michael finally confronts Ryan (in his own way)—but both are laced with sadness. The closest we get to the holiday itself is when Angela makes fun of “Hay Place,” calling it “Pay Place” and quipping, “So, we can celebrate Thanks-giving-me-your-money Day.” My wife muttered, “That’s what fall feels like. ‘Buy this 5-gallon bag of apples, buy these sweaters and lattes so you can walk around hot and sweaty.’”
If you enjoy thirds of cranberry sauce you may like this episode because it’s bittersweet.
#5 The Simpsons: “Thanksgiving of Horror” (S31.E8)
The Simpsons’ annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode is a Halloween tradition going back to the show’s second season in 1990, but 2019 was the first (and so far only) year in which a Thanksgiving-themed spinoff episode aired. As with “Treehouse of Horror,” the episode has three segments, each telling a different scary tale. When Marge says the episode is “pretty gruesome, so you might want to cover your kids’ eyes,” you should consider it fair warning. This was my kids’ first memorable introduction to The Simpsons, and we discovered that the layout of the show made it difficult for the uninitiated.
The first tale is based on Apocalypto (2006), telling the story of the first Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Simpsons—but as turkeys. There are plenty of witty plays on words, bringing 1600s verbiage together with 2019. The second story is an homage to Black Mirror that centers around Homer buying Marge a “kitchen AI” to help her prepare Thanksgiving dinner. However, things go awry when the AI becomes self-aware.
The premise of the final tale is that humanity has abandoned earth, having the last Thanksgiving on an Ark-like ship. The episode parodies many movies but mostly holds to 1958’s The Blob, which our family happened to watch a few days previous. In the end, the Simpsons find a way to have a first Thanksgiving (no spoilers). The ep’s ability to bookend the first Thanksgiving and the last Thanksgiving, and then give hope for another “first” Thanksgiving, made me appreciate the effort. Sadly, although it had a cornucopia of Thanksgiving-ness, that was offset by a lack of laughs.
#4 The Goldbergs: “A Wall Street Thanksgiving” (S5.E7)
In typical Goldberg fashion, the family has a lot going on: Adam plays Atari’s “ET,” Uncle Marvin suckers Barry into buying stocks (hence the ep title), and Beverly decides to take Thanksgiving off. You don’t need to have seen the last four Thanksgiving specials to understand that Bev always stresses over meal prep, which both makes this an easy introduction to the series and adds the majority of the episode’s holiday flavoring. In fact, our family related to Bev’s inviting fifty people over to potluck her meal, since we had just come from a house bursting at the seams with people, some of whom we didn’t even know.
The premise of the show was good enough to hook us into spending 2020 watching every episode from the beginning. I wouldn’t say it was this episode’s humor that sold us (although it slowly ramps up)—it had more to do with the lovable characters and charming 80s’ nostalgia (as we’ll also see in a minute with Cheers). The ep has some memorable scenes but in terms of comedy and Thanksgiving feel, it’s just pretty OK.
#3 Friends: “The One with All the Thanksgivings” (S5.E8)
Overall, the episode is pretty solid and it’s easy to figure out the dynamics if you’ve never seen Friends before (don’t worry about the duck). The group has a contest to determine who has had the worst Thanksgiving, which allows us to witness their past. Because the episode is designed to DeLorean us back to other Thanksgivings, we not only get the character background that fans waited five seasons for, but we also get some funny caricatures of the 80s.
There’s some talk of sex, so if you’re not ready for that convo with your kids, maybe preview it prior to watching together. We were a little caught off guard, but turned it into an opportunity to share what we wanted our kids to know about the birds and the bees.
For what it’s worth, this is the highest IMDb rated episode out of this list (with a 9.2). In my opinion, Friends and Cheers are the quintessential “friendship” shows of their respective decades. Cheers has a slight leg (or thigh?) up on Friends, because the drinking buddies episode has a little more of that un-quantifiable “heart.”
#2 Cheers: “Thanksgiving Orphans” (S5.E9)
That “heart,” that ability to touch us, is why I love Cheers. In fact, although I never watched it as a kid, it takes me back to my childhood. No, I didn’t spend my nights in a bar. It’s the nostalgia of the 80s and characters and writing that still hold up to this day.
This episode is an easy enough intro to the show as a whole. It starts in the Cheers bar where everyone (knows your name and) complains about how others disappoint them during the holidays. So, they decide to have Thanksgiving at Carla’s instead. The remainder of the episode takes place at Carla’s, which is interesting since the show rarely takes place outside of the bar. The gang spends the second act watching football in the living room while the food is delayed (funnier than it sounds). It reminded me of my grandparents’ wood-paneled living room with their massive green and white couch, my family crowded around their big box of a TV. I didn’t care much for football so one Thanksgiving, being the nerd I was (and still am), I found newspapers and Styrofoam meat trays, made football pads, and stared at the TV in cosplay.
The episode really shines in the final act when everyone finally sits down. The ravenous group begins to bite each others’ heads off (Cliff jibes that it may be the only thing they eat) demonstrating that they’re just as bad as the “others” they earlier lamented. This is why the episode is stellar. It strikes the perfect balance of covertly teaching me to look at the plank in my eye, while easing me into that realization by increasing the humor and outrageous situations. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s famous for good reasons. According to Dave Nemetz, this episode is “…now considered not only one of the best episodes of the NBC comedy’s eleven-season run, but one of TV’s greatest half-hours, period.”
So with all the that nostalgia, great writing, flawless acting, and “greatest half-hour” fanfare, how did this episode end up in #2? It’s possible that since comedy is subjective based on the year of viewing, Bob’s Burgers simply resonated better in 2019. But I don’t think that’s the case.
#1 Bob’s Burgers: “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” (S3.E5)
We had never watched an episode of Bob’s Burgers but as soon as Louise spoke my daughter said, “Hey! That’s the voice of the lady [Kristen Schaal] that does Mabel on Gravity Falls!” And we were hooked.
The episode centers around how much Bob loves Thanksgiving and how his family (the Belchers) really don’t care about the holiday. This hit very close to home—my wife’s response was to laugh and say, “This is like how you love Christmas and I’m like, ‘Meh. Give me Halloween, Day of the Dead, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving…’”
Maybe it was our personal identification that made us enjoy the episode, but I think it’s just straight up funny Thanksgiving joy. As the episode continues the Belchers’ landlord asks them to pose as his family, and shenanigans ensue. This was an easy gateway into the Bob’s Burgers universe. Its quirky humor (including a drunken hallucination inspired by My Neighbor Totoro and witty Easter eggs similar to those in The Simpsons) kept us laughing the whole time.This hit very close to home—my wife’s response was to laugh and say, “This is like how you love Christmas and I’m like, ‘Meh. Give me Halloween, Day of the Dead, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving…’”
In the middle of the show, my son went to get ice cream for everyone and shattered a bowl all over the floor. He was very apologetic, but no one was mad. We were just thankful he wasn’t hurt—which could only be a gratitude we learned from this incredible episode! The spirit of Thanksgiving was alive and well!
…Okay, maybe Bob’s Burgers didn’t have some magical effect, and maybe Thanksgiving didn’t suddenly make us adopt a thankful heart. My attempt at humor aside, this tradition of watching shows may not magically increase your thankfulness, but it was some good quality family time that we’re all looking forward to repeating this year. Happy Thanksgiving!