It’s almost time for Americans to gather ’round a giant table, cut into a delicious bird (or tofurkey, for the vegetarians), then kick back and let the tryptophan settle in. While sitting around lazily, football is the usual go-to entertainment, but if your favorite team isn’t playing that day, or you’re just not a big fan of the sport, why not try some Thanksgiving-themed television instead?
Christmas/holiday episodes are a given on network TV, and Halloween offers up a myriad of possibilities for almost any show, but the celebration that falls in between gets much less small-screen love, especially in recent years. That being said, some of the greatest moments in TV history have come from observing our favorite characters as they attempt to cook feasts, get along both family and friends, and honor various cultural traditions. From 30+ year-old sitcoms to teen dramas, there’s a Thanksgiving episode for everyone out there. If you’re looking for a few good hours of holiday programming, here are the 15 Best Thanksgiving TV Episodes.
15. “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” – Gilmore Girls
In preparation for the limited revival Gilmore Girls: A Day in the Life coming to Netflix the very next day, why not spend Thanksgiving with Lorelai and Rory? Jump back in time to season three, during Rory’s senior year at Chilton, when she and her mom are faced with a conundrum: four separate turkey day celebrations, and just twelve hours to squeeze them all in. Fortunately, as Lorelai reminds her daughter “What are we if not world champion eaters? …This is what we’ve been training for our whole lives.”
So in “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving,” Lorelai and Rory visit Lane and Mrs. Kim’s house for tofurkey and hymns, Sookie’s for the fried fiasco, and Luke’s Diner for a humble meal with the owner and his nephew (Rory’s new beau, Jess). They end the night with an upper-class affair at the Hartford mansion of Rory’s grandparents Richard and Emily Gilmore, where they continue to discuss one of the season’s primary topics: Yale vs. Harvard, and how Lorelai feels that her parents are getting too involved in Rory’s life. It’s a classic episode of the show at its finest, featuring a Jess vs. Dean moment, the girls’ trademark witty banter and pop culture references, lots of food, and even a great moment for Lane, who gets her first kiss from the dreamy Dave Rygalski (Adam Brody, in his first of two appearances on this list). Check out all of Gilmore Girls now on Netflix.
14. “Turkeys Away” – WKRP in Cincinnati
As the oldest entry on this list, “Turkeys Away” is widely considered one of the best classic TV sitcom episodes of all time, and arguably the greatest with a holiday theme. WKRP in Cincinnati, a CBS offering from Mary Tyler Moore Productions in its heyday, showed the inner-workings of the titular radio station after it switched from easy listening to rock music programming. It was a workplace comedy that created humor out of ordinary situations, and made it four seasons before cancellation, likely due to the frequent network issue of abrupt time slot changes.
Some of the characters were developed based on employees of real-life Atlanta radio station WQXI, and the stories told by executive Clarke Browne to the show’s creator Hugh Wilson. That’s the case with this episode, the seventh of the series, during which station manager Arthur Carlson feels left out of the daily goings-on, and decides to create his own promotion for Thanksgiving. This ends up with the crew releasing 20 live turkeys from a helicopter, and disaster ensues. The plot was taken directly from an event that occurred at WQXI, and it also inspired the episode’s infamous final line: “I thought turkeys could fly.” The episode is on Hulu Plus, along with the rest of the first season.
13. “More Like Stanksgiving” – Happy Endings
For three brief seasons, we had something beautiful: ABC’s Happy Endings, a Friends-esque meta comedy that delighted critics and audiences. It plugged along even after the network aired the first season disastrously out-of-order, before meeting its untimely demise in 2013. Yet people still care about Alex, Dave, and the whole gang: At EW PopFest last month, the cast assembled to do a hilarious run-through of “the lost script,” written by creator David Caspe just for the event. Though there’s always hope of a revival, you can spend Thanksgiving with the Chicagoan crew just the same, by viewing season three’s “More Like Stanksgiving” on Hulu Plus.
The episode shows the gang getting together at Alex and Dave’s new apartment for the holiday. The primary subplot involves Dave getting a small taste of the struggles his Navajo ancestors may have faced. But the greatest arc is that we finally see how the gang met Brad, when he and Max were on an unaired season of The Real World. Brad and Jane learn that their first impressions of the other weren’t exactly favorable, but they’re happy for the accident that was their drunken hookup. And Max “comes out” on TV, though not in the way that he thought. Of course, a flashback wouldn’t be complete without a few prior references illustrated: Jane in her Gwen Stefani-garb, Brad with dreadlocks, and Penny and Max in a sexless relationship. And the perfect picture of how the group was formed was completed.
12. “The Homecoming” – The O.C.
In the first season of the FOX teen drama The O.C., wealthy Newport Beach family the Cohens take in Ryan Atwood, a 16-year-old kid from Chino who has lived a difficult life. Upon his arrival in Orange County, Ryan begins a romance with Marissa Cooper, the literal girl-next-door who’s facing her own familial demons. It takes a few months, but by episode 11, “The Homecoming,” Marissa and Ryan are happily dating, with the former trying to get her new boyfriend to open up about his past. So they take a trip together to visit Ryan’s brother, Trey, in prison. Trey’s in trouble and owes some people money, so Ryan agrees to do a sketchy job for him. After an encounter with his ex and a physical altercation, Ryan realizes that he’s left his old life behind for good.
Back home, Kristen and Sandy Cohen attempt to set up Marissa’s dad Jimmy with Sandy’s coworker, Rachel, while Seth spends some time with his “friend,” Anna. The drama is ramped up when Jimmy’s ex -wife Julie and her new man — who just so happens to be Kristen’s dad — Caleb show up. And if that wasn’t enough, Summer, Seth’s long-time love interest, also stops by and Seth tries to juggle both girls. All of this drives Kristen to consume a very large amount of alcohol, and Sandy burns the turkey, leading to Chinese takeout and an evening of revelations. All four seasons of the show are available with a Hulu Plus subscription.
11. “Meet the Grandparents” – Raising Hope
When the quirky, blue-collar family sitcom Raising Hope premiered on FOX in 2010, it was a surprise hit. The network has long struggled with its comedy block and, hoping to turn this around, worked with Greg Garcia, creator of like-minded hits Yes, Dear and My Name Is Earl. The show is centered around the Chance family: Burt and his wife, Virginia, who conceived their son, Jimmy, while in high school. Jimmy is something of a loner, but has a one-night stand with a woman who turns out to be a wanted murderer. After she is given the death penalty, he takes on the responsibility of raising their infant daughter, Hope. Also living in their home is Virginia’s grandmother, known as Maw Maw, who suffers from dementia.
It turns out that the Chances don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but Jimmy decides to change that for Hope, and invites her other grandparents, the Carlyles, over for the holiday. Serial killer Lucy’s dad, Dr. Carlyle, is a psychiatrist, and her mom is his patient, which adds a whole extra element of crazy to the already off-beat household. Store manager Barney pops by to whip up the meal, Virginia proceeds to get drunk, and the Carlyles decide to kidnap Hope and raise her themselves. Watch this episode (and all the rest) on Netflix.
10. “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!” – Gossip Girl
From The O.C.‘s creator and its EP, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, came another teen drama about a group of rich kids (and their parents) getting into trouble. Based on the popular book series, Gossip Girl followed bad girl Serena van der Woodsen, queen bee Blair Waldorf, golden boy Nate Archibald, and hotel heir Chuck Bass, along with the original Brooklyn hipster/undercover blogger Dan Humphrey. All six season are available on Netflix, so if you don’t mind watching a series where the biggest twist was spilled four years ago, you have many hours of binging ahead of you. Or you could just take in the season one holiday gem, “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!”
While Gossip Girl takes the day off, Serena and her best frenemy Blair are on the outs. We see flashbacks to Thanksgiving the year prior, when Serena was still partying hard and sparks were beginning to fly between her and Blair’s then-beau, Nate. In the present, Serena, her mom, and brother end up dining with the family of Serena’s new man, Dan, and a big secret it revealed: Seren’s mom and Dan’s dad were once an item. Blair, counting on a reunion with her own father, succumbs to her eating disorder when she discovers her mother has betrayed her, and Serena takes her turn in helping out her BFF. The episode is a classic look at how relationships change and evolve over a year’s time, and how the holidays bring out the best and worst in us.
9. “Thanksgiving” – New Girl
Season one was New Girl at its best, and though almost every season has offered us a hilarious look at Thanksgiving, the first one can’t be beat. Though the early sexual tension between Jess and Nick is apparent by the sixth episode, Jess decides to focus on her crush on Paul, the music teacher at her school. She invites him to celebrate the holiday with her and the gang at the loft, despite the boys’ objections. Add in Jess’s best friend (and Schmidt’s crush) CeCe, and there are quite a few clashing personalities hanging in the loft.
It quickly became clear that Paul (played by Justin Long) was basically just the male version of “adorkable” Jess, and he starts to bring out the weirdness in everyone. Though the guys start off tough, they start to show their true colors throughout the episode: Schmidt’s obsessive cleanliness and control issues, Winston’s emotional side, and even Nick’s cool shell begins to break down after learning Jess’ feelings for Paul. There’s also this whole thing where they try and defrost the turkey in the dryer, filling the loft with smoke, and leading Paul to discover something unpleasant in the next door apartment. You can watch the episode on both Hulu Plus and Netflix.
8. “Hungry Man” – Dexter
Yes, Dexter went off the rails. But considering it was a show about a deeply disturbed serial killer protagonist who somehow worked at a Miami police station for the entire series run, it’s not really surprising that things went beyond crazy and into absolutely absurd. Showtime’s long-running hit was praised for its first few seasons, but many agree that it never really recovered after season four. That season’s Thanksgiving episode was a very entertaining piece of television, and also the beginning of the end.
Our titular anti-hero has spent the better part of the season learning about Arthur Miller, AKA The Trinity Killer, portrayed flawlessly by John Lithgow. Dexter has seen that Arthur’s family isn’t as perfect as he previously thought, and when he (as his alter-ego Kyle Butler) is invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the Miller’s house, Dexter learns just how messed up things really are, and how Arthur treats his family — leading Dexter to reveal who he truly is underneath. But the biggest twist comes at the end, when we learn a secret about Quinn’s girlfriend and reporter Christine Hill. All eight seasons of Dexter are on Netflix.
7. “Lockdown” – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Another hilarious FOX comedy, another Sophie’s choice picking just one Thanksgiving episode. Though Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s season one’s “Thanksgiving” and season three’s “Ava” are both great half-hours of television, it’s the second season offering, “Lockdown,” that really takes the cake here. The 99th precinct sets out to have a normal holiday, but disaster strikes when a parcel with an unknown substance is spotted, and the entire station is put on lockdown — with Jake in charge.
Jake tries to be the chill guy in charge, but Amy eventually convinces him that someone has to be a decisive leader. Meanwhile, Terry begins to bond with his antagonistic brother-in-law when the latter incorrectly assumes the captain is a bad boss. Choice moments include Boyle and two criminals doing the “Single Ladies” dance, and Holt bouncing up and down on an exercise ball. As long as you have Hulu Plus, you can laugh along as the gang attempts to keep a group of prisoners, lawyers, and civilians warm, fed, and entertained.
6. “Slapsgiving” – How I Met Your Mother
The epic nine-season run of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother brought us years of laughter, though it disappointed many in the end. Still, even those angered by the finale stuck with the show for so many years for one primary reason: all of the inside jokes. And of the countless repeated phrases and gags, few are quite as memorable as the Slap Bet. Beginning with season two, episode nine, a wager about Robin’s past introduced us to Robin Sparkles, and set Barney up to receive his punishment from Marshall “from now to eternity“.
One year later, Marshall declares the gang’s first Thanksgiving “Slapsgiving,” with a countdown ticking away to the third slap of five. Despite the name of the episode, the focus is actually on how Robin and Ted, despite having broken up at the end of season two, slept together the night before. Lily, determined to have a perfect holiday meal, shuts Robin and Ted in a room to work out their issues, and “cancels” the slap. Everything works out in the end — the former lovers take the first step back toward friendship, Marshall gets to slap Barney after all, and we even get a Jason Segel original on the piano, with Neil Patrick Harris on backup vocals. Season five’s “Slapsgiving 2: Revenge of the Slap” is a close second, but don’t take our word for it — you can check out both episodes on Netflix.
5. “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” – The Simpsons
Now in its 28th season, The Simpsons has, without a doubt, left a huge mark on TV history. Taking it back to the early days, the season two offering “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” is the show at its best: simple, with a few good laughs and a heartwarming message. After Lisa spends countless hours on an elaborate feminist centerpiece for their holiday meal, Bart throws it into the fire, and is sent to his room, as Marge tells him he “ruined Thanksgiving.”
Not understanding where he went wrong, Bart grows angry and runs away from home. After donating blood (illegally), he ends up at a soup kitchen, where he’s interviewed for the local news, and his family discovers that he’s missing. Though he’s hesitant to go home and face the wrath of his parents, Bart realizes that he has it better than most, and returns to find Lisa still sulking over her destroyed masterpiece. She encourages her brother to dig deep inside and find the part of him that’s sorry, and the two make up. As long as you have a cable subscription, you can sign in on FXX’s SimpsonsWorld.com, and indulge in some old-school animation.
4. “Helen Keller! The Musical” – South Park
South Park is undoubtedly known for pushing buttons. However, its season four Thanksgiving episode “Helen Keller! The Musical” is hardly one of its most offensive (depending on where you’re sitting). Obviously, it comments on the life of Helen Keller, as told in The Miracle Worker, but it’s hardly making fun of the differently-abled. In fact, the hero of this story is Timmy, along with his disabled turkey, Gobbles.
Cartman wants their performance of The Miracle Worker to go perfectly, so he enlists the help of a local thespian as well as a professional turkey performer to, among other feats, jump through a hoop of fire on stage. Timmy, who is set to play Helen Keller, bonds with Gobbles, and refuses to give up on his new pet. The boy and the bird risk everything to get back to one another after the turkey is sent to its death and, in the end, Gobbles saves the day. All 20 seasons are available on the South Park Studios website, but you need an account.
3. “My Day Off” – Scrubs
As far as re-watch value goes, few can compete with Scrubs. It’s jam-packed with gags that somehow never get old, and you may find you can relate to different characters depending on what you’re going through in life. And back in season one, everything was fresh — Carla’s advice, Turk’s immaturity, and Dr. Cox’s defiance of authority — and we were constantly learning about the doctors of Sacred Heart.
In “My Day Off,” J.D. is admitted for appendicitis over Thanksgiving, and creates a rift in his friendship with Turk when he expresses concern about having his BFF perform the surgery. He soon discovers Turk is pretty awesome at his job. Meanwhile, Cox gets some advice from an old mentor, and Elliott learns to embrace the fact that she’s both physically and emotionally cold. You can find every episode (including the final season, but let’s not talk about that) on Netflix, where we recommend you play the scene where Turk dances and sings “I’m gonna cut you open” to J.D. over and over.
2. “The One with All the Thanksgivings” – Friends
Though some might argue that Friends began to go downhill after the first few seasons, some of the best episodes came in the second half of the series. By this point, we knew the six New Yorkers very well, and were sometimes treated to flashbacks that filled in blanks or revealed entirely new information. The season five holiday episode “The One with All the Thanksgivings” gave us a lot to be thankful for on that front.
First, Chandler recalls the Thanksgiving where he learned his dad was gay and his parents were getting divorced. Phoebe chimes in with a past-life recollection, along with a holiday memory from a couple of years before Rachel moved to the city, during which Joey gets his head stuck in Monica’s turkey. But the main event is when Rachel recalls two consecutive Thanksgivings from their teenage years, where we get to see how Monica lost weight, and the awkward way her friendship with Chandler began. Whether you want to see the moment where Chandler lost his toe, or the couple say “I love you” for the first time, you can head over to Netflix to reminisce.
1. “Pangs” – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Thanksgiving isn’t exactly known for being the spookiest holiday (that comes the month before), but leave it to Buffy the Vampire Slayer to dig up some dirt on the day — literally and metaphorically. Our titular heroine decides that she wants to get the whole gang together for a good old-fashioned turkey day, but as usual, her plans are thwarted. However, this time it’s not vampires or demons, but spirits. Namely, the spirits of the local indigenous people who were wronged, and are back for revenge.
When important Sunnydale citizens begin turning up dead (and Xander contracts syphilis), the Scoobies begin to piece everything together, but face “white guilt” over the cause. Spike turns up at Giles’ place while Angel lurks in the background, and together they all take on the Chumash. It’s a history lesson mixed with the usual BtVS butt-kicking and humor, as Spike rattles off one-liners, Willow tries desperately to keep things PC, and Buffy obsesses over her perfect meal. Though not the greatest of the series, the season features some of the best one-off episodes, and “Pangs” is a choice delight. Check it out on Netflix.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving episode of TV? Let us know in the comments!
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