Before everyone gets too excited about Christmas, we have Thanksgiving coming up. There are so many emotions that are invoked when people think about the holiday. For some, could bring up good memories with the anticipated main meal and spending time with family. It could also involve negative memories associated with family that some people don’t want to see. There’s never a simple feeling and it can be pretty complicated to what people are going through.
Luckily, TV episodes that focus on Thanksgiving help us break it down. It’s the ability to show the different aspects with characters that we know and love that helps convey this. So here at Cultured Vultures, we’re going to look at the best Thanksgiving episodes of all time. The episodes on the list will range from the traditional interpretation of the holiday to some off-the-rails stories you might not usually associate with Thanksgiving.
1. Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “Thanksgiving” (Season 1)
Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for the precinct so she can impress Captain Holt (Andre Braugher), and he can mentor her. Things go wrong when Holt and Jake (Andy Samberg) have to leave for a case while everyone gets irritable as Santiago won’t start dinner until Holt comes back.
A big part of the comedy comes from Terry (Terry Crews), who’s always a delight. To maintain his muscle mass, he needs to eat 10,000 calories, and to see him hangry is funny. Eventually, they get some dinner (from all the takeout places that are opened), and it’s nice to see the whole ensemble together. Watch this episode, and you’ll enjoy spending time with this precinct.
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Pangs” (Season 4)
Pangs does a great job of addressing the big elephant in the room with Thanksgiving: the historical origins of the holiday. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) wants one day of normalcy from fighting evil and just wants to focus on hosting a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. While Buffy is trying to prep for dinner, a Native American spirit seeks vengeance against people who have slaughtered the indigenous people. It leads to the gang debating if they should even stop him. In a show about vampire slayers and demons, you don’t really expect to see a conversation about colonialism handled so well. Both sides make good points and they’re all in character.
Along with that debate, this episode features amazing lines, including one of the best Spike moments in the whole show. He explains why Americans shouldn’t feel guilty about conquering other cultures by saying “You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. It’s what Caesar did, and he’s not going around saying, I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.” Balancing out funny moments and the debate about guilt that comes with Thanksgiving, Pangs remains a must watch.
3. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)
The Peanuts Gang always has the best holiday specials, and a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is no exception. It boasts the same Peanuts charm that we all love. It’s the acting from the child actors that helps make any Peanuts special feel memorable. Some people might say that it’s awkward and forced, but that’s precisely what the Peanuts specials go for. It’s reminiscent of a school play, and the Peanuts gang is a part of the cast.
Most of the episode is about the Peanuts gang and their preparations for their feast. Charlie Brown doesn’t know how to cook, so he leaves the cooking to Snoopy and Woodstock. Everyone enjoys the supper, which features toast, popcorn, pretzels, jelly beans, and an ice cream sundae. The scene is so mellow as Linus explains the origins of the holiday with the score of sweet-sounding jazz by Vince Guaraldi. It also features Snoopy at his best when he serves up Thanksgiving dinner by just chucking plates of food at them. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is still definitely a Thanksgiving classic to this day.
4. Chuck – “Chuck Versus the Leftovers” (Season 4)
Chuck is a perfect combination of spy comedy and action. The series follows Chuck (Zachary Levi), a computer geek who accidentally downloads critical government secrets into his brain by opening an email from his old college roommate. At this point in the season, Chuck has found his mom Mary (Linda Hamilton) and finds out that she’s also a secret agent. Mary plays double agent as she joins with international arms dealer Alexei Volkoff (Timothy Dalton).
Mary swears that she’s playing double agent because Volkoff is in love with her. Volkoff discovers that Chuck and Mary are related, and instead of getting angry, he self invites himself for Thanksgiving to prove he can be a loving figure in their family. Timothy Dalton steals this episode as one-minute, Volkoff is this sinister figure, but then he’s complimenting the meal and playing his charade. Dalton is such an underrated actor, and this episode shows why he’s one of the best actors that few are talking about.
5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “My First Thanksgiving With Josh!” (Season 1)
Don’t let the title fool you, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one of the most underrated shows of the decade. With its great balance of comedy, drama, and witty musical numbers, it’s a must watch. Throughout season 1, Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) is trying to win Josh’s (Vincent Rodriguez III) affections. In this episode, Rebecca tries to further impress Josh by going to his house for Thanksgiving and charm his whole family so he can love her.
As usual with this show, it features terrific original musical numbers. One has Greg performing “What It’ll Be”, a song very similar to Piano Man by Billy Joel as he sings about wanting to leave West Covina. The other is “I Give Good Parent” which has Rebecca rapping about her plans to woo his family with Josh’s mom (Amy Hill) providing the chorus. The broadcast version is great but the explicit version that’s online is laugh out hilarious as it perfectly balances out raunchy and clever. Just like the show, this episode will definitely leave you with a great earworm.
6. Dexter – “Hungry Man” (Season 4)
A breakout show to say the least as the premise pushes moral boundaries with our protagonist being a serial killer. Throughout season four, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is tracking down the famous Trinity Killer. He finds out that the killer is Arthur Mitchell (John Lithgow), a man with a seemingly perfect family life. Dexter finds himself trying to figure out how he deals with it all and goes undercover to figure out his secrets. Dexter discovers to his horror that Arthur abuses the Mitchell family. He beats his son, locks his daughter in her room, and dominates his wife.
As Dexter gets more horrified, you don’t know if Arthur is going to finally snap or Dexter will just kill him. It all ends with a chilling dinner where everything hits the fan. The tension is so high that your pulse will be racing as the full facade of the Mitchells is dropped. The Thanksgiving dinner scene still remains one of the best scenes in Dexter. By the end of the episode, you’ll be thankful that you’re not having dinner with the Mitchell family.
7. Friends – “The One with All the Thanksgivings” (Season 5)
In a show that’s known for their Thanksgiving episodes, it’s hard to pick the best one from Friends’ back catalogue. You have the episode when they all play football, the one with Brad Pitt, the one when Chandler was in a wooden box for six hours, and many more. So why not choose an episode that’s dedicated to Thanksgiving memories.
It’s a non-stop comedy roller coaster with Phoebe’s wartime flashbacks from a past life to when Monica accidentally cut Chandler’s toe. By far, the most magnificent flashback is when Joey tries to play a prank on Chandler by putting a raw turkey on his head, but it gets stuck. It leads to the stinger when Monica recreates the turkey prank with oversized sunglasses that has become one of the most iconic images of the whole series. You’ll be laughing from beginning to end.
8. How I Met Your Mother – “Slapsgiving” (Season 3)
In a show filled with memorable running gags, fans often point to the “slap bet” as one of their favorites. The slap bet involves Marshall (Jason Segal) having the power to dole out five slaps against Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) over any time.
For the third slap, Marshall deliciously tortures Barney throughout Thanksgiving by describing how he’ll slap him and the pleasure that it’ll give him. Just one main joke throughout the whole episode but it’s never overused. The payoff to the actual slap is well worth it as Barney is in pain while Marshall sings an original song he wrote “You Just Got Slapped” that everyone sings along to. Everything from the writing to the performances helps make Slapsgiving a hilarious affair.
9. Master of None – “Thanksgiving” (Season 2)
This episode focuses on Denise (Lena Waithe) as we explore her life by looking at some of her Thanksgivings throughout the years. We see Denise realizing she’s gay and coming out to her family even know they struggle with the fact. Waithe co-wrote the episode with Aziz Ansari, and she loosely based the events on her life. She puts her heart and soul into this story as the events shine a light on how some members of the LGBT community feel during Thanksgiving.
Waithe and Ansair deservedly won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, but Angela Bassett, who played Denise’s mom should have gotten an Emmy for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. Especially for the scene when Denise comes out to her at a diner. With emotions ranging from pure denial to sadness, both actresses shine in this powerhouse scene. Thanks to the standalone nature of this episode, you can easily watch this incredible episode without any hesitation.
10. Seinfeld – “The Mom & Pop Store” (Season 6)
The Mom & Pop Store is the only episode on this list that doesn’t solely focus on Thanksgiving. With Seinfeld, it’s more of a B-plot as it ties to the main story. It’s one of the many things that this show does that makes it so iconic with its ability to juggle all of these stories in an episode, and have it tie together for the ending.
The main plot has George (Jason Alexander) buying a car, thinking that it was Jon Voight’s. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) manages to get her boss his dream of holding the Woody Woodpecker balloon in the Thanksgiving Parade. Kramer (Michael Richards) gives all of Jerry’s (Jerry Seinfeld) shoes away to this small business that goes under so Jerry has to walk with red cowboy boots.
All of these stories meet together when they go to a party hosted by Tim Whatley (Bryan Cranston). Jokes are coming out a mile a minute, and it ends with Jerry accidentally popping the Woody Woodpecker balloon. The comedy doesn’t aim to get bigger and bigger laughs each time, but supports it by playing off each other. If anyone still hasn’t seen Seinfeld, this episode is an excellent example of why it’s still one of the best shows of all time.
11. South Park – “Helen Keller! The Musical” (Season 4)
An underrated element of South Park is the heartwarming moments. You’ll see no better episode than Helen Keller! The Musical that focuses on the relationship between Timmy and Gobbles, a disabled turkey. Timmy stars Helen Keller in the fourth graders’ Thanksgiving play, The Miracle Worker. Since it’s for the Thanksgiving Extravaganza, they give Helen a pet turkey. The bond between Timmy and Gobbles is so endearing as it’s reminiscence of relationships with your pets. The fact that both of them are disabled adds an extra layer that will make you tear up.
You’ll still get some great laughs as a large part of the comedy is from Jeffery Maynard, the man Cartman hires who is just an impression of Colm Wilkson (the Broadway actor who played Valjean from Les Misérables.) Trey Parker kills it as Maynard as he overacts each line and nails Wilkson’s iconic voice. It also gives one of the most disturbing moments of the show when Maynard blindfolds Cartman to get his creative juices flowing. Cartman sees the most disturbing things like Nazis march and graphic shot of surgeries but shrugs it off as things he’s already seen. A Thanksgiving episode that’s equal parts heartwarming and dark comedy that we come to love with South Park.
12. This is Us – “Pilgrim Rick” (Season 1)
What makes This is Us so special is the examination of one family, the Pearsons. They play around with time with the show placed mainly in the present and uses flashbacks to show the Pearson’s past. With such a family-focused show, you’ll know they have a great episode centered around Thanksgivings. Pilgrim Rick is fantastic as it explores one of the essential parts about Thanksgiving, the traditions.
The flashbacks show the Pearson’s Thanksgiving turn for the worst when their car breaks down. They have to walk 3.4 miles to get stuck at an extremely hot lodge, have no food, and only play Police Academy 3. Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) turns those hardships into the best experience that his kids can have, and they become treasured memories. In the present, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) still keeps the torch going as he continues the ritual with the rest of the Pearson family.
It’s the scenes when we get to see how their traditions are born as Ventimiglia’s performance shows why he’s everyone’s favorite TV dad. Then to see Randall enthusiastically continue those practices with such love for his family is also exceptional. Both of them convey so much passion and warmth they have as fathers. Just like every other episode of This is Us, it’ll be sure to leave with you a few tears.
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