The Trouble with Thanksgiving TV

It’s officially the Holiday Season, that latter part of every year when Americans, perhaps in a bid to combat the increasingly chilly weather, draw together with friends and family to celebrate whichever holidays are most important to them, usually starting with Thanksgiving. It’s at this time of year, right as kids start getting time off from school, that most television series start their hiatuses, going into weeks to months of repeats or preemptions to save up new episodes for the next year. This has, in the past, prompted networks to commission Holiday Specials to fill air time and for many, these have become holiday traditions in their own right.

However, while there are many fantastic (and some pretty terrible) Christmas Specials, Thanksgiving is mostly left out. Sure, there’s A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, but that’s about it, and very few would argue that it’s more memorable than, or even in the same conversation with, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Instead, we get Thanksgiving- themed or set episodes of TV series. There are many great ones, particularly from sitcoms, but even so, the overall canon has nothing on the sheer numbers of memorable Christmas episodes. Why is it then that, in a country where just as many (actually, slightly more) people celebrate Thanksgiving (97%) as compared to Christmas (96%), that the holiday is so underrepresented or, in many cases, so mediocrely represented by those series that do attempt a themed episode?

The largest and most obvious reason is football. Football on Thanksgiving is a tradition dating back to the 1890s. While Christmas TV tradition tends to be the family sitting together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), Thanksgiving has seemingly always been a day for feasting and football, with little interest in or success for counterprogramming. By far the most popular and successful Thanksgiving special each year is the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and that’s pretty much it. It hasn’t been profitable to make original themed programming, so there isn’t much of it, and instead families go out to the movies, with Thanksgiving weekend as one of the biggest box office weekends of the year.

There aren’t many traditions for the day either; unlike Christmas, there are very few steps to Thanksgiving. For most people, it’s pretty much food prep, family, and watching the game, with an option on Little Susie’s school pageant. There are only so many stories to be told about this, whereas Christmas has a far more extensive mythology. We shy away from Thanksgiving’s mythology, understandably, and embrace the basic message instead, whereas often at Christmas, it’s easy to lose the basic message in favor of the mythology, particularly considering how many people celebrate it as a secular holiday. Christmas for many is basically a second Thanksgiving, with roast beef or ham substituting for turkey, cookies for pie, and the added elements of Santa and presents. For the nonreligious, there are plenty of stories to tell, and for the religious, there are just as many. As previously stated, there are only so many ways to have someone forget to defrost a turkey ahead of time or deal with a visit from the inlaws.

Perhaps this is why most of the memorable Thanksgiving TV episodes are from sitcoms. Friends had a particular affinity for the holiday, putting together several excellent Thanksgiving episodes over its run. The Cosby Show, Cheers, Roseanne, WKRP in Cincinnati, and The Bob Newhart Show each had fun with the day, and more recent fun entries include South Park’s “Starvin’ Marvin” and How I Met Your Mother’s “Slapsgiving.” Then there are the numerous sitcoms that do Thanksgiving episodes with less success- even well executed ones, like Cougar Town’s from last year, often blend together in one’s mind; merely focusing on the basics or traditions of the day aren’t enough to distinguish oneself. The successful ones are those that take creative approaches or, at the least, center around a particularly successful setpiece or gag (be it Cheers’ food fight or WKRP’s flying turkey), and it’s much easier to come up with a sitcom’s 22 minutes of solid, creative material, as compared to the approximate 42 minutes of an hour-long.

Thanksgiving is a holiday more suited to comedy in general- as far as these things go, it’s pretty low stress (at least, for the non-cooks), and it’s also one just as easily and often celebrated with friends as with family, allowing those with difficult family situations to avoid the drama, at least ‘til Christmas. Even the few hour-long shows to tackle the holiday well have done so with comedy- Gilmore Girls, which was always at most a dramedy, focused on the comedy for “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving”, The West Wing gave us the dramatic “Shibboleth”, but its most Thanksgiving-y plotline is definitely CJ’s wrangling of a couple turkeys for the traditional Presidential Pardon, and perhaps the best Thanksgiving episode is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Pangs”, featuring a tied up Spike (vampire) getting continuously shot by arrows that just miss his heart (along with the great description from Anya of Thanksgiving as “a ritual sacrifice. With pie.”). There are plenty of comedic Christmas episodes, but there are also many dramatic ones, and perhaps this additional flexibility adds to the disparity in coverage- many series choose between the holidays (very few do both in a given year), and in making that decision, it’s understandable for shows to go for the holiday they feel freer with.

Despite the examples above, Thanksgiving remains a challenge for most series and, given the seeming disinterest in networks for commissioning new holiday specials, this doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. In fact, this year saw Christmas specials popping up on the main networks on Thanksgiving evening- more than likely, the Christmas Creep will remove the tradition of Thanksgiving programming all together. Thanksgiving is a fantastic holiday, almost universally celebrated and enjoyed in the US- it’s a shame our media doesn’t reflect this.

Kate Kulzick
Follow me on Twitter @theteleverse to see what I’m watching and to tell me your favorite Thanksgiving traditions



By Kate Kulzick

Kate is a violinist by day, TV-aholic by night, and film geek by somewhere around dawn. While attending UIUC, she earned a Masters Degree in Violin Performance and a Schrute Buck in a Pop Culture Trivia Contest; of the two, so far only the latter has hung on her wall. Her favorite movies are The Princess Bride, Casablanca, and The Third Man and her favorite TV shows are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, and Arrested Development.

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4 Responses to The Trouble with Thanksgiving TV

  1. Blane Mather December 1, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Kate,

    Re: WKRP – fair enough. If everyone liked exactly the same things, it would get pretty boring.

    Reply
  2. Kate Kulzick November 30, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Hey Blane- Sorry, my bad. Corrected. I have seen it, though a few years ago. To be a bit blasphemous, considering how well loved the episode is, I was disappointed- I definitely didn’t laugh out loud. Good call on the Butterball hotline- definitely a fun subplot! Plus Charlie and the Paul Revere carving knife kicker was incredibly touching.

    Reply
  3. Blane Mather November 30, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Oh, and my favorite West Wing Thanksgiving moment is the episode where the President calls and quizzes the turkey hotline!

    Reply
  4. Blane Mather November 30, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    Just a note: the WKRP In Cincinnati episode “Turkeys Away” most certainly didn’t involve a ‘frozen’ bird. It’s a family favorite for the holiday and I just watched it again a few days ago, but much of the ending (and the punchline) wouldn’t have made sense if the turkeys hadn’t been alive.

    BTW, you should view it soon … it has one of the best one-liners to close out a 20 minute sitcom as has ever been written.

    Reply

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