Love them or hate them, most holiday TV episodes follow a familiar pattern. For Halloween, they involve scaring, trick-or-treating, or urban legends whose authenticity takes approximately 20 minutes to verify, depending on episode run time. For Christmas, there are lessons learned left and right: moral points about materialism, faith, family, and the magical generosity of the big man in red himself.
Thanksgiving episodes don’t have all of that. Instead, they only have to hit two story beats: family and eating. This exceedingly open-ended storytelling rubric has led to some incredible, offbeat variations on the holiday episode. Thanksgiving episodes tend to be darker and weirder than any other holiday specials, perhaps because the forced family time, glossed-over historical injustice, and rampant consumerism that surround the holiday are themselves weird and dark.
Regardless, the result has been great TV. There are hundreds of turkey day episodes, but these are a few of my favorites that are worth revisiting this holiday weekend. Like a full kitchen table on Thanksgiving, there’s something here for everyone.
For the Cheapskates:
Malcolm in the Middle – “Thanksgiving”
Perhaps the funniest half hour on this list, Malcolm in the Middle’s season five Thanksgiving episode takes one of the working-class family sitcom’s most random in-jokes — the idea that unintelligent Reese is inexplicably a cooking savant–and milks it for every possible laugh. Side antics include Malcolm getting drunk at a party and Francis and Piama fighting during their visit home, but nothing tops Reese’s wild-eyed plan (for which he’s enlisted Dewey and a confused-but-hungry Hal) to cook a turkey inside a monkfish. Malcolm is better than almost any other sitcom at snowballing its plots until they become hilariously extreme, and this episode is no exception.
Friends – “The One With All The Thanksgivings”
Since Friends has a Thanksgiving episode for each of its 10 seasons, you can theoretically marathon them all this holiday weekend, but if you’re short on time, this flashback episode is a standout. It sees Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, Rachel, and Ross winding down from dinner by sharing memories about their worst Thanksgivings, because as Chandler says, “reliving past pain and getting depressed is what Thanksgiving is all about.” Phoebe wins most interesting with a past life memory of life as a wartime nurse, but the majority of the episode retells a great Monica-Chandler story that ultimately involves a severed toe and that famous turkey-the-head bit.
The Socially Conscious Thanksgiving-Boycotter:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Pangs”
Joss Whedon’s seminal series is praiseworthy for a lot of reasons, but racial representation isn’t generally one of them. That’s why this Thanksgiving episode, whose baddie is a revenge-seeking Chumash Native American spirit that everyone feels too guilty to vanquish, is a fairly pleasant surprise. Series-wise, it’s a clever and memorable episode, with an appearance by Angel, an arrow-riddled Spike tied to a chair, and Xander’s syphilis (later catchily referenced in a “Once More, With Feeling” song), but it’s Willow who stands out as the lone ethical voice empathizing with Hus the spirit. The episode also doubles as a spin on an anxiety-inducing rite of passage: the first adult Thanksgiving away from home.
For The Person Who Already Misses Halloween:
Dexter – “Hungry Man”
The Michael C. Hall-led slasher drama got a bad rap for its lukewarm ending, but remember how gloriously fantastic its fourth season was? The Trinity Killer, played with pathological precision by John Lithgow, was revealed to us in bits and pieces over the course of a near perfectly plotted season. In some sense, “Hungry Man” is the key to the whole season’s success, the three-fourths marker that triggered a breakneck pace that followed through to the shocker of a finale. In it, Dex finds himself invited to the killer’s bizarre family dinner, where things quickly shift from uncomfortable to violent. By episode’s end, Dex’s dark side has come out in broad daylight, leaving him vulnerable to the series’ most harrowing villain.
For Best Frenemies
How I Met Your Mother – “Slapsgiving”
How I Met Your Mother has a surprisingly dense and labyrinthine mythology for a sitcom, but few bits are as memorable or enjoyable as Barney and Marshall’s slap bet. As the result of a wager, Marshall was given the chance to slap Barney as hard as he can at any time. The third slap comes in season three’s Thanksgiving episode, in what’s been affectionately dubbed “Slapsgiving.” The episode revels in all the little sadistic and hilarious ways prank-happy friends mess with one another and culminates in a slap heard round the world — and commemorated in song. The episode has some sweet B-stories, including fallout from Ted and Robin’s first breakup, but it’ll always be remembered for its devilishly gleeful reinvention of a holiday.
For The Nostalgic:
Mad Men – “The Wheel”
Where were you when Don gave his carousel speech? The series’ indelible season one finale takes places during the week of Thanksgiving, but that’s easy to forget considering that Don never makes it to Betty’s family’s house for the holiday. Instead, he ends up alone at home after hearing of his brother’s suicide and giving Kodak the pitch of a lifetime. The nostalgia here is twofold; there’s Don’s nostalgia, a yearning for the family he only connects to in photos used to sell something, and there’s our own. Mad Men is a series that demonstrates the passage of time with a rare sense of realism, so viewing an early season can also trigger a dangerously intoxicating hit of nostalgia. Holidays and family time are both extra-easy to romanticize, and “The Wheel” does a brilliant job deconstructing the twisting expectations and shortcomings that accompany them while still maintaining that wistfulness for days gone by.
For The Put-Upon Home Chef:
Bob’s Burgers – “Turkey in a Can”
Sweet, funny, and open-minded, with an intriguing central mystery, “Turkey in a Can” is a great holiday episode in a series that’s jam-packed with solid holiday episodes. In this one, Bob gets obsessive about a three-day turkey brine he plans to work on for Thanksgiving, but his recipe keeps getting foiled when turkeys begin to be mysteriously dumped into the family’s toilet overnight. Meanwhile, Tina tries to prove she’s adult enough to graduate from the kids’ dinner table, Linda makes an inappropriate holiday carol, and a gay butcher accidentally ends up in a will-they-or-won’t-they situation with Bob.
For The Family That’s Imploding in Slow Motion:
Shameless – “Just Like the Pilgrims Intended”
The penultimate episode of Shameless’ second season might be the bleakest Thanksgiving episode to ever air. The series is already one of television’s most messed up shows, and it doesn’t get much darker than this. The Gallaghers’ family dinner starts with the killing and eating of a bald eagle and ends with everyone at the hospital, and everything that goes down in between is bound to make you feel better about the state of your own royally screwed up family. We should’ve known what we were getting into when we signed on to watch a series about a poor Chicago family with a deadbeat dad and missing mom, yet somehow the cruelty and unpleasantness in this episode — which marks a tonal shift in the series from mostly comedy to mostly drama — is still a surprise. Is this a good family night pick? No. But a top-notch hour of television? Absolutely.
For The Super-Popular Friend Who Double Booked Dinner:
Gilmore Girls – “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving”
No one does holidays like the residents of Stars Hollow, so it’s only natural that Rory and Lorelai eventually get stuck attending four different Thanksgiving dinners in one day. There’s tofurkey with Ms. Kim and Dave, Lane’s crush, followed by a chill diner meal at Luke’s, then onto Sookie’s, where a deep-fryer is out in full force. Finally, the hollow-legged duo land at Emily and Richard’s, where signature Gilmore-style drama ensues. The episode loses points for having several appearances from Dean in full jilted stalker mode but gains them back for the warm-hearted, zany way it incorporates all the little details that make holidays at once fun, exhausting, and unbearable.
For That Catharsis Cry After You’ve Survived Another Family Holiday:
Friday Night Lights – “Thanksgiving”
If you remember Friday Night Lights as a show about football, its fourth season finale saw a significant win for the underdog East Dillon Lions, giving the team led by Michael B. Jordan’s Vince a much-needed victory. If instead, you recall FNL as a show about instilling character and everyday goodness into boys who would otherwise fall prey to a toxic culture of hypermasculinity, then you’ll know all too well that this is the bittersweet episode where Tim Riggins finally gets to be a righteous hero. The good news is that it’s both, and both plotlines will make you cry off the calories from dinner. In Dillon, Thanksgiving dinner at the Taylor house unfolds with the show’s typical verisimilitude — and a surprise Saracen appearance! — until a heartbreaking moment cuts the evening short. Pro tip: if you have tears to spare, watch this as an NBC drama triple feature with the Thanksgiving episodes of This is Us and Parenthood.