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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The 19 Best Thanksgiving TV Episodes, Ranked

If there’s one thing more dysfunctional than gathering around the dinner table to ask weird relatives you (thankfully) see only once a year to pass the mashed potatoes and argue about politics, it’s watching the fictional characters of your favorite TV shows and sitcoms do the same. Whether they’re disagreeing about religion, bringing a narcoleptic to dinner, or serving up a side of salmonella with their turkey, here’s our definitive guide to the best Turkey Day-themed TV episodes. Let the arguments begin.

19. The Office – “WUPHF.com”

Though Christmas tends to be the bigger holiday for the employees of Dunder Mifflin, this episode sees Dwight attempting to erase the childhood trauma caused by his family creating competing “hay festivals” each Thanksgiving where he was never crowned king. In order to right that wrong, he turns the parking lot into his own festival, all with the goal of finally taking that hay crown he believes he deserves. Because, really, isn’t that what the spirit of the holiday is all about?

Watch on Peacock

Where to stream: Netflix

18. All in the Family – “The Little Atheist”

Archie Bunker never met a person he didn’t disagree with—perhaps none more vehemently than his liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivic. No matter what the occasion, merely placing these two within shouting distance of each other was usually all it took to ignite a screaming match. And in the case of “The Little Atheist,” the quarrel in question revolved around Mike’s rather carefree attitude toward the religion of his unborn child. Archie wants him to be baptized and raised as a Christian; Mike thinks his child should be allowed to make up their own mind. Even 40 years later, the episode still hits home for its very straightforward—and familiar—approach to dealing with in-laws.

Watch on Pluto TV17. South Park – “Helen Keller! The Musical”

South Park has never played by the rules, which is part of its enduring popularity. It’s also what makes South Park’s version of a “Thanksgiving episode”—an irreverent musical production of The Miracle Worker, complete with pyrotechnics and a daredevil turkey—hardly surprising, as it’s coming from the brilliantly disturbed minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Watch on HBO Max16. Orange Is the New Black – “Fucksgiving”

Piper Chapman is about to experience her first Thanksgiving while being incarcerated but is also anticipating a visit from her fiancé, Larry. Before he arrives, some of the inmates begin dancing—and when Piper and Alex join in, the bit of harmless fun spirals into a claim that the two women had been spotted doing more than dancing in the shower, and Piper is sent to solitary confinement. While Larry frantically tries to find out what happened to Piper, Piper is worried that she’ll spend the next several months out of sight. But her time alone with a moldy bologna sandwich for dinner proves to be a turning point for her … and her relationship with Alex.

Watch on Netflix15. Seinfeld – “The Mom & Pop Store”

Like any episode of Seinfeld, there are multiple plots happening in “The Mom & Pop Store,” but they’re all happening at Thanksgiving time, and many of the episode’s high points revolve specifically around the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Among the highlights: Elaine helps her boss, Mr. Pitt, win a chance to pilot the Woody the Woodpecker balloon by correctly identifying a song on a radio contest … but Jerry later punctures the balloon when he drops an Empire State Building statue out the office window of frenemy Tim Whatley (Bryan Cranston, in an early role). The episode was inspired by real-life footage of a deflated Woody Woodpecker balloon making its way down the parade route but is probably better known for the Midnight Cowboy-inspired plotline that sees George purchasing (maybe) Jon Voight’s LeBaron convertible and Jerry walking around the city in a pair of slippery cowboy boots.

Watch on Netflix14. Bob’s Burgers – “Turkey in a Can”

Thanksgiving has become a big deal for Bob’s Burgers, which now has a sizable collection of hilarious, holiday-themed episodes. But the show’s second one, “Turkey in a Can,” edges out the competition for its inventive mixing of genres. Bob is preparing the holiday bird for a special three-day brine when it mysteriously finds its way into the toilet. While everyone denies having anything to do with the turkey’s relocation, they’re all still suspects—so Louise goes all Forensic Files and launches a full-scale investigation to out the culprit. Meanwhile, Bob has to resort to a one-day brine but buys an extra “decoy” turkey to help identify the guilty party (which leads to an awkward encounter with the butcher).

Watch on Hulu13. M.A.S.H. – “The Yalu Brick Road”

M.A.S.H. was always ahead of its time, daring to go places few other series of the time would. Case in point: seeing Klinger (Jamie Farr) serve up a Thanksgiving feast with an unexpected dose of salmonella that sickens most of the camp. The episode, which was written by Mike Farrell (who played Captain B. J. Hunnicutt), is a shining example of M.A.S.H.’s ability to pull humor from the most (literally) painful places—and one of the episode’s best lines belongs to Rizzo (G. W. Bailey): “You know how you feel after you eat too many hot dogs and drink too much cheap booze … I wish I felt that good.”

Stream on Hulu12. Gilmore Girls – “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving”

After three seasons of watching Lorelai and Rory Gilmore regularly indulge in whatever junk food they can find, their appetites for overconsumption are finally put to the test when they say yes to four separate Thanksgiving dinner invitations—each one a little different than the last (it kicks off with a tofurky). The real treat in the episode, however, isn’t in seeing whether the mom-daughter team can pull it off and still be standing at the end, but witnessing a very drunk Sookie (played by Melissa McCarthy) give us what might be our very first glimpse at the raucous comedy chops she has since become famous—and Oscar-nominated—for.

Watch on Netflix11. The Simpsons – “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”

The Simpsons may have the market cornered on Halloween, but this episode taps into the Thanksgiving spirit—family arguments and all—when Bart accidentally breaks a table centerpiece that Lisa made and runs away from home. After spending the holiday at a homeless shelter, Bart develops a deeper appreciation for his family. He returns home to make amends with his distraught sister, and the family all gathers together to dig into a round of leftovers.

Watch on Disney+10. The Sopranos – “He Is Risen”

The Sopranos was never a feel-good kind of show, and no amount of holidays spent with family (blood or otherwise) was going to change that. In this particular episode, the holidays have arrived and caused a bit of chaos as Carmela prepares to host a growing number of guests—including Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano), who is butting heads with Tony over a number of issues, including a greeting that Tony took as disrespectful—and Ralph viciously murders one of the strippers at the Bing. While the episode does feature too much Jackie Jr. (any amount of Jackie Jr. is too much Jackie Jr.), it makes up for it by introducing Aaron Arkaway, Janice’s boyfriend and Christian songwriting partner. Arkaway suffers from narcolepsy and can’t keep his eyes open during dinner, but he is excited to announce the news that “He is risen” to everyone who enters the Soprano home. And you thought your family had problems.

Watch on HBO Max9. The Wonder Years – “The Ties That Bind”

There comes a time in every kid’s life when they finally realize that their parents have identities beyond just “mom” and “dad,” and that there’s an entire history to that relationship that they’ll likely never know or understand. That moment comes on Thanksgiving Day for Kevin Arnold. When his father, Jack, asks for a raise at work so that he can buy his wife a new stove, his boss agrees and even offers him a promotion. Except the promotion comes with a catch: Jack will need to spend a lot of time on the road, including Thanksgiving Day. Though Kevin’s mom attempts to put on a happy face, Jack’s absence is deeply felt throughout the family—especially when it comes time to carve the turkey. But the normally thrifty Jack surprises the whole family when he forks over some serious cash to fly home at the last minute, not to share dinner with his family, but simply to spend an hour with them at the airport before turning right back around. Somehow, it’s more than enough.

Watch on Hulu8. Mad Men – “The Wheel”

Of all the so-called “difficult men” who have come to define the latest Golden Age of television, Mad Men’s Don Draper/Dick Whitman might be the most complicated—and with good reason. He’s got an envy-worthy advertising career, a wife and kids who love him, and the perfect suburban home, but it’s not enough for Draper. As a man who is hiding who he really is from the world, it’s appropriate that his seemingly perfect veneer would come crashing down around Thanksgiving. After Don makes it clear to his wife that he doesn’t want to spend the holiday with her family, Betty—in one of her first acts of defiance against her husband—takes their kids and leaves without him while Don is at work. Over at Sterling Cooper, Don learns that his younger brother Adam has killed himself (largely due to Don’s rejection of his past, or connection to his biological family). At the same time, he’s tasked with pitching Kodak on their latest innovation: a photo projector that Don calls “the Carousel.” It’s during his presentation to Kodak, where he uses images of his own family to wow company reps by showing them the importance of the device they have created, that Don finally (maybe) realizes what’s truly important and rushes home to be with his family … only to find an empty house. Like so many of Mad Men’s best episodes, it’s both a harbinger of what Don’s future will look like and a metaphor for the life he has built for himself: an attractive package with nothing inside. (Peggy, too, deals with the difficult decisions that come with balancing personal and professional lives.)

Watch on Apple TV7. Bewitched – “Samantha's Thanksgiving to Remember”

Two words: Witch hunt! To help get Samantha and Darrin Stephens into the holiday spirit, her beloved Aunt Clara decides to use the family’s magical powers to send them back in time to the Pilgrims’ earliest days in Plymouth, Massachusetts. But what could be a fascinating history lesson turns into a life-or-death situation when Darrin lights a match he has brought with him from the (then) present day and is accused of witchcraft. Then it's up to Samantha to save her husband. Innovative comedy like this serves as a great reminder of just how entertaining (and cutting-edge) Bewitched was.

Watch on Amazon6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – “The Gang Squashes Their Beefs”

The gang from Paddy’s Pub isn’t known for their altruism, but in the name of Thanksgiving—and a handful of forgiveness-related clichés, like “bury the hatchet” and “wipe the slate clean,” which they take very literally—they decide to host a dinner and invite just a few of the hundreds of people they’ve wronged over the years. The McPoyles are there (thankfully), as are Bill Ponderosa and Gail the Snail, with Rickety Cricket showing up later. But if you think this dinner ends peacefully, you’ve clearly never seen an episode of Sunny.

Watch on Hulu5. Friends – “The One With All the Thanksgivings”

Over the course of its 10 seasons, Friends rarely met a holiday it didn’t want to put its personal stamp on in some way (see: The Holiday Armadillo), but the series had a particular affinity for Thanksgiving. Its creators produced plenty of turkey-themed filler over the years, each with its charms (and set of fans). But season 5’s fowl-fest is loaded with fun flashbacks as the gang shares stories about their worst-ever Thanksgivings, and also moves Monica and Chandler’s budding romance forward at the same time. Plus, a raw turkey is used as headgear in a way that Mr. Bean would be proud of.

Watch on HBO Max4. The West Wing – “Shibboleth”

President Jed Bartlet knows a lot of things about a lot of things—including that it takes a very special knife to properly carve a Thanksgiving turkey. So he sends Charlie on a wild goose (turkey?) chase to find just the right one, explaining the importance that a carving knife holds in a family and how it should be passed down from father to son … then he gifts Charlie with his own family’s carving knife. (OK, it’s sort of sappy, but it works.) The highlight of the episode, however, is when C.J. is put in charge of deciding which of two turkeys is the more photogenic and, as such, more deserving of the annual presidential turkey pardon. Seeing the normally cool C.J. sauntering into her office, only to find a pair of turkeys hanging out there, is worth the price of admission.

Watch on HBO Max3. Cheers – “Thanksgiving Orphans”

Before Friends had the NBC monopoly on Thanksgiving, there was Cheers. In this classic episode, Carla has the house to herself as her many, many kids are off with their dad, Nick. So, as everyone else’s plans begin to fall apart, she agrees to host dinner—as long as it’s potluck. But as is so often the case with this sort of setup, things don’t go according to plan. In particular? Norm’s turkey … which seems only to get colder the longer it cooks in the oven. As hunger strikes and tempers boil, the episode turns into an epic food fight—one in which the closest we ever get to seeing Norm’s wife Vera is ruined when she is hit in the face with a pumpkin pie.

Watch on Paramount+2. Master of None – “Thanksgiving”

While cooking snafus, long-simmering sibling rivalries, and heated dinner-table debates are about as high as the stakes get in a typical Thanksgiving episode, Master of None used the holiday as a touchstone for Denise’s coming-out story. Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe cowrote the episode, which follows the Thanksgivings their characters have shared together since childhood. It also offers a moving history of Waithe’s character, Denise, coming to terms with her own sexuality and eventually coming out to her mother (played by Angela Bassett), who gradually grows to accept her daughter. Ansari and Waithe won the 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for “Thanksgiving,” and Bassett earned a nod for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.

Watch on Netflix1. WKRP in Cincinnati – “Turkeys Away”

WKRP in Cincinnati might not be as well-remembered today as some of its late 1970s/early '80s sitcom counterparts, but it should be—if only for delivering what is undoubtedly television’s greatest-ever Thanksgiving episode. In an effort to drum up some PR for the holidays, WKRP station manager Arthur Carlson comes up with the worst publicity stunt of all time: Drop live turkeys out of a helicopter. As if buttoned-up news director Les Nessman’s live play-by-play of the chaos weren’t enough—"Oh my God, they’re turkeys!” “They’re crashing to the earth right in front of our eyes!” “Oh, the humanity!” “The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement!”—it’s Carlson’s final admission that steals the episode: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” You’ll have to fork over $1.99 to rent it on Apple TV, but it’s the perfect way to end a Thanksgiving meal.

Watch on Apple TV

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