Poor Thanksgiving. All sad and sandwiched in between Halloween and Christmas. Stores don’t decorate for it, and then to add insult to injury, they start their Black Friday sales at 6 pm Thursday night, forcing their employees out the door, pie undigested, back to work. Even TV can’t be bothered. Lady Gaga notwithstanding, who goes out of their way to mount a Thanksgiving-themed TV special anymore? You’re lucky to get a mediocre sitcom’s attention if you’re not Christmas (the long lost 1999 Puritan-themed sitcom Thanks being a notable, extremely strange, exception). It’s somewhat unfair.
But there is turkey-themed entertainment out there — the good, the bad, the weird, the sad. And you should watch it in the following order…
Happy Days (1978): “The First Thanksgiving”
Mrs C. (Marion Ross) is so angry that her family would rather watch a football game on TV than help her in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day that she unplugs the set and forces them to listen to her history lesson about the origins of the holiday. A time-traveling dream sequence commences, in which the entire cast invents Thanksgiving, and adds the olden tyme suffix “-eth” to a lot of words. Fonzie rides a foot-powered wooden motorcycle and absolutely nothing funny happens. It is, however, deeply ahistorical and stupid, so it’s got those qualities going for it.
Cheers (1986): “Thanksgiving Orphans”
None of the show’s witty problem drinkers have anywhere to go for the holiday — save for Diane (Shelley Long), invited to a professor’s house but winding up with the Cheers crew anyway, dressed like a Puritan. So it’s off to Carla’s (Rhea Perlman) for a food fight. Meaning that they all fight about the food. And then they throw it at each other. It is spectacular, in the grand tradition of The Three Stooges.
Mad Men (2007): “The Wheel”
When we talk about Mad Men, this is the episode we talk about. And it’s based around a Thanksgiving where Don Draper (Jon Hamm) ignores his family in favor of work. Grinding out a pitch for Kodak’s new circular slide projection device, Draper conducts a masterful monologue about loss, nostalgia, and longing so diabolically evocative and moving, so ready to rocket-fuel the sale of Kodak slide projectors, that it’ll have you cursing every tear-jerking Hallmark commercial that followed in its fictional wake. That it also brutally interrogates the character delivering that monologue is just another example of this show’s brilliance. Trigger warning: a serious bummer.
Thanksgiving With The King Family (1967)
This is the family Don Draper was talking about in his Kodak “Carousel” pitch. What’s interesting about this squeaky-clean, real-life army of blond song warriors is how total their domination of the culture was back in their era, and how not-discussed they are now. What happened? Are the Baby Boomers embarrassed they watched and genuinely enjoyed this truly happy bunch dance and sing all over television? Granted, the Kings weren’t exactly cool then, either, but they stayed on message and delivered. Even while dancing to “Turkey In The Straw” in Bob Mackie costumes. Even while selling a number about the joys of group-milking a cow. Just released on DVD, you need to see this; these folks were having a kind of bizarre fun that eluded even the most far-out of hippies.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving(1973)
Bullied into preparing a Thanksgiving Day meal for his friends by Peppermint Patty, the perpetually-tormented Charlie Brown lovingly does his best to keep everyone happy by planning a menu of toast, popcorn, pretzels, and jellybeans. How a 7-year-old wrangles that many toasters remains a mystery, but that’s not the point — this remains a lovely animated lesson in manners, graciousness, and togetherness. Just ignore the last bit where Snoopy serves Woodstock roast turkey and Woodstock happily cannibalizes his fellow bird. It was a simpler time.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: Home movies from 1939 and 1954
This isn’t on TV. It’s on YouTube
. And it’s great. Both short clips (from 1939
) were shot on 8mm cameras and uploaded to the internet. Both are in color and they’re a trippy time machine of vintage balloons, freaky giant-head costumes, and very cold spectators who lacked the technology of polar fleece. Even better, not a single tween pop star lip-syncing a song you don’t care about on a float sponsored by mayonnaise. So these are pretty much perfect.
The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Collection
An entire box set
‘s annual Turkey Day marathons. You get all the awful movies (The Screaming Skull
, for instance) and all the wrap-around sketches and clips that went along with them. You can dump your rapidly eroding VHS tapes now, and re-enjoy the excellent company of Joel, Mike, Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot. This will take all day to get through, so settle in.
WKRP in Cincinnati (1978): “Turkeys Away”
This may be the greatest Thanksgiving-themed sitcom episode ever created, and if it’s not? Then it’s at least in the top three. The station embarks on a turkey giveaway promotion by dropping the birds from a helicopter onto the heads of unsuspecting shoppers. It all happens off-camera as station newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) provides frantic reporting from the carnage (“The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! The crowd is running for their lives! Oh, the humanity!”) Also freshly available via the new WKRP DVD box set
Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1999): “Pangs”
Because you can’t really think of Thanksgiving without also thinking of the forced migration (among other things) of the original Americans, and because that is an exceptionally unhappy historical reality — or, in Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) own words, “a sham with yams… a yam sham” — the Buffy crew sent the vengeful spirit of a Native American to ruin the Scooby Gang’s Turkey Day. While trying to ward him off, Buffy accidentally transforms the angry ghost into a bear. This displeases Spike (James Marsters). Pointed and hilarious.
South Park (2013): “Black Friday”
A tornado of an extended episode that sweeps up Black Friday shopping carnage, Game of Thrones
, video game console mania, Tickle Me Elmo, and the soul-decimating awfulness of American consumerism into its vortex of awesome destruction. In a perfect world it would have won the Emmy it was nominated for and then rightfully jump-started the demand for the next South Park
musical feature film. It didn’t. Because everything sucks.
Dave White is the film critic for Movies.com and co-hosts the Linoleum Knife podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @dlelandwhite.