On TV, Thanksgiving typically represents a gathering together. Families, either made or found, come together to celebrate with delicious Turkey and Thanksgiving side dishes and express thanks for all that they have. This can lead to some pretty wholesome TV, but that’s not the only thing a show can do with the holiday. Thanksgiving is a great excuse for characters to bounce off of one another in unusual ways, and it’s also a holiday that many viewers have feelings of their own about. The best Thanksgiving episodes use those feelings to their advantage, creating an episode that either reinforces what people love about the holiday or subverting expectations completely.
Thanksgiving episodes aren’t as common as Christmas episodes, but plenty of high-profile shows featured more than one. These are the very best of the bunch, and are great examples of what you can turn on after a big meal no matter what kind of mood you’re in.
WKRP in Cincinnati
WKRP in Cincinnati is not a show that most people remember well today, but if you’re looking for a great joke about Thanksgiving, you will do no better than the one in this episode. The episode is based around a Thanksgiving-based radio promotion in which one of the station’s higher-ups decides to drop live turkeys from a helicopter. As you might imagine, the stunt does not go well, and we get some stunning color commentary as the turkeys are brutally killed. The episode is capped off with an all-time great line from the man behind the promotion: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
The first season finale of Mad Men comes as the holiday season is dawning. Don’s home life is unraveling, and he delivers the most magical pitch of the entire series. Unlike many of the entries on this list, “The Wheel” isn’t primarily set at a family get-together. Nevertheless, the episode is filled with ruminations on family, and what it means to be connected to someone even after you’ve decided you don’t want to be anymore. Mad Men is an all-time great series, and in “The Wheel”, it proved that it could be as compelling and thoughtful as it had been its entire first season.
Gilmore Girls wasn’t always defined by gimmicky episodes, but the show definitely knew how to pull one off. In “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving”, the action is defined primarily by Lorelai and Rory’s attempt to attend four Thanksgiving celebrations over the course of a single day. The episode is light on ongoing plot, but there are a few key developments. What’s most important, though, is soaking in all the details of the town of Stars Hollow. Gilmore Girls was defined by colorful characters, and in this Thanksgiving episode, they’re all on display.
The Friends Thanksgiving episode became something of a tradition over the years, and “The One With All the Thanksgivings” is widely regarded as the show’s best. The episode features each member of the show’s core ensemble reminiscing about their worst Thanksgivings, which include one in which Chandler loses a toe, and another where Joey gets a turkey stuck on his head. The episode is best remembered for these images of turkeys on heads, the show also throws in plenty of great gags about everything from 80s fashion to Phoebe’s belief in reincarnation. You can watch all seasons of the show on HBO Max.
Otherwise known as the episode with the food fight, “Thanksgiving Orphans” presaged Friends as an episode focused on the show’s motley crew assembling for Thanksgiving because all of them have nowhere else to go. As the bar crew assembles at Carla’s house, most of the episode is actually spent waiting for the turkey to thaw. By the end of the episode, everyone is throwing food at one another. It’s a delightful episode of Cheers, and a reminder that Thanksgiving is more about spending time with people you love than about the food you get to eat.
Friday Night Lights
Given the importance of football in many Thanksgiving day celebrations, it’s only fitting that Friday Night Lights would have a Thanksgiving episode worthy of this list. In its season 4 finale, Friday Night Lights proved that its soft reboot would be well worth watching. Coach Taylor has now been the coach of the East Dillon Lions all season, and the finale sees them taking on their much better funded cross-town rivals, the Dillon Panthers. In the middle of the football, there’s also a Thanksgiving feast, but the real attraction here is the game itself, which plays out in thrilling fashion and features some heroism from an unlikely character.
On many TV shows, the holidays are a time for setting aside differences and uniting behind family and your common humanity. On The Sopranos, that’s definitely not the case. In “He Is Risen”, the titular family continues to be plagued by all the resentments and feuds that defined them throughout the course of the entire series. Tensions between Tony and Ralphie remain high, and although they reach a tentative truce at the end of the episode, it’s clear that no alliance between them is ever going to last forever. Plus, Carmela deals with the very relatable stresses of hosting.
How I Met Your Mother
Although the episode gets its name because Marshall delivers one of his famous slaps to Barney in the episode, “Slapsgiving” featured How I Met Your Mother at its rom-com best. The episode takes place in the wake of Ted and Robin’s breakup, and the two struggle with how to co-exist as friends. Meanwhile, Marshall and Lily are attempting to celebrate their first Thanksgiving as a married couple. “Slapsgiving” gives us a chance to get all of the show’s core characters together, and the results are as hilarious and uncomfortable as you might imagine.
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At its best, there wasn’t a funnier show than New Girl on TV, and season 2 was the show at its finest. In “Parents”, Jess realizes that her divorced parents are coming to the apartment for Thanksgiving at the same time, and uses the opportunity to try and get them to reconcile. Her attempt ultimately backfires, but to truly hilarious results. New Girl was a show about a group of friends who often got uncomfortable when things got too personal, and that’s exactly what happens in “Parents”. The episode is occasionally touching, but always hilarious, and that’s what makes it special.
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Master of None
Holiday episodes aren’t usually when shows decide to deviate from the norm, but that’s precisely what Master of None did, to electrifying results. Coming near the end of the show’s second season, “Thanskgiving” focuses almost exclusively on Dev’s best friend Denise, and chronicles her personal history as it relates to Thanksgiving. In depicting years of Thanksgiving tradition, Master of None gets to comment on how time passes even as it frames the episode around a single holiday. It’s a bold, moving episode of TV, and one of the show’s very best.
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