This Thursday, millions of Americans will gather around kitchen tables large and small to celebrate the gift of family and eat themselves into tryptophan comas.
Thanksgiving can be a time for camaraderie and rainbows by the fire as snow falls softly outside the window and Cousin Cindy plays Bing Crosby on the piano. Or it can be a painful procession of long hours during which a dozen people who should probably never be in a room together (ever) bicker and jostle each other around the kitchen, dropping turkeys on each other’s toes and developing muscle spasms from all the eye rolling at Uncle Jim’s racist jokes. Still other Thanksgivings are pleasant (if sometimes madcap) gatherings of chosen family – friends and neighbors who come together to count their blessings.
November television specials have captured the essence of Thanksgiving since the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show in 1950.
Wikipedia lists more than 500 of them. There was The Brady Bunch’s homemade film about the pilgrims, and Glee’s musical ode to coming home, complete with an original cast reunion. Debra once cooked a tofu turkey for everyone on Everybody Loves Raymond, and the tradition of Thanksgiving mac n’ cheese was upheld on Everybody Hates Chris. These specials offer us either a comical mirroring of our own Turkey Day mishaps, or a reminder of what this holiday is all about.
1. All in the Family, “The Little Atheist” (1975)
A pregnant Gloria cooks her first Thanksgiving dinner. She and husband Mike “Meathead” Stivics play host to her parents, and dinner conversation inevitably turns to Gloria and Mike’s unborn child. Archie wants his grandchild to be raised as a Christian, while the baby’s liberal parents want to let her make that decision when she’s older. Look out for some way-ahead-of-its-time discussion of religion and atheism, fart noises and Archie in his skivvies.
2. Full House, “The Miracle of Thanksgiving” (1987)
In this gem from season one, the Tanners celebrate their first Thanksgiving since Pam’s death. Grandma Tanner was supposed to fly in to make dinner for the whole family, but a snowstorm kept her at home. The trio of Full House fellas decide to make dinner themselves. Though not everything goes as planned, and a sad sort of emptiness hangs over the day for some, this clip shows the real lesson of this and all Full House episodes: in the end, it’s all about family.
3. How I Met Your Mother – “Slapsgiving” (2007)
In season two, episode nine, Barney and Marshall make a slap bet. Through a series of unfortunate premature slaps and unearned slaps, Barney is given the choice either to be slapped ten times in succession right then and there, or to receive five slaps spread out over time, to be given at any time, with or without warning, into eternity. He chooses the latter.
Cut to season three, episode nine. It’s Thanksgiving, and Barney is due for his third slap. Marshall spends a great deal of time taunting him, only to be refused the slap by Lily, the slap commissioner. This is Thanksgiving, after all. No time for violence. The ending of this episode is too great to spoil. It was so good, it spawned two more Slapsgiving episodes, including this one, where Marshall bequeaths the fourth slap to Ted.
4. Will & Grace, “Homo for the Holidays” (1999)
Jack’s mother joins for Thanksgiving dinner. The gang tries to keep Jack’s gayness from her, with Grace acting as the beloved girlfriend. And you thought your dinner conversation was awkward.
5. Friends, “The One with All the Thanksgivings” (1998)
Throughout its ten seasons, Friends aired a Thanksgiving special every year: The One Where Underdog Gets Away (1994), The One with the List (1995), The One with the Football (1996), The One with Chandler in a Box (1997), The One with All the Thanksgivings (1998), The One Where Ross Got High (1999), The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs (2000), The One with the Rumor (2001), The One with Rachel’s Other Sister (2002), and The One with the Late Thanksgiving (2003). The 1998 episode is a fan favorite, and features the friends at Monica’s apartment, sharing stories of their worst Thanksgivings. In this one, it’s 1987, and Chandler sees Monica for the first time after she loses weight. He once called her “fat,” so she wants revenge.
Thanksgiving Specials coming up this week
Is your family in town for the whole week, and you’re not sure what to do with them? Why not whip up some popcorn, brew some hot cocoa, and enjoy these 2014 specials.
Saturday Night Live Thanksgiving, a compilation of the best Thanksgiving sketches. Tuesday at 9pm on NBC.
Thank You, America!, in which host Robin Roberts thanks Americans for being good Americans. Thursday at 8pm on ABC.
Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and Charlie Brown Christmas will both air on Friday beginning at 8pm on ABC. “I haven’t even finished eating all of my Halloween candy!”
Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever is a TV movie starring the one and only world famous frowny-faced feline, voiced here by Aubrey Plaza. It premieres Saturday at 8pm on Lifetime.
And of course, Thursday morning, tune in to NBC for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featuring marching bands, Renee Fleming, Idina Menzel, KISS, clowns, Nick Jonas, the Madden Brothers (yes, those ) Madden brothers), Meghan Trainor, Pentatonix, and many, many others.
Sarah Hope is a graduate student at Syracuse University, where she focuses on television, entertainment history and classical music. Find her on Twitter @sarahmusing.