No Home for the Holidays: The End of Thanksgiving TV

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No Home for the Holidays: The End of Thanksgiving TV

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | November 22, 2013 | Comments ()


This is the time of year when critics, bloggers, and columnists trot out lists of the best Thanksgiving-themed TV episodes ever made. Lists like these are totally reliable from a content perspective: people like lists, people like TV, and people like reading lists about TV about current events. Seriously. Search for “best Thanksgiving episodes” and you’ll see what I mean. These lists are fun and enjoyable, and they almost always cover the same few things: Charlie Brown, Friends, a mix of classic and modern. The order might change and the opinions might vary, but the lists themselves are pretty static.

Part of this is just the way time works. Writing about Thanksgiving TV means being able to pick and choose from decades of programming, while every year only a few more episodes of scripted series are added to the pot. Something that’s had the edge for years, like “Turkeys Away” from WKRP in Cincinnati, is almost always going to trump a newcomer from the CW. It’s a slow accrual process. Plus there’s the fact that classics are rarely, if ever, born that way. Their reputation and acclaim grow with time, so a rundown of Thanksgiving stories is almost always going to include the same handful of episodes.

But there’s another reason: the culture in which something like a Thanksgiving-themed episode of a TV show could make a splash is dying. It might be dead already.

These episodes we always talk about are almost all drawn from eras when there were far fewer TV options, and when those episodes had to be watched live if you wanted to actually see them. No time-shifting, no downloading, no recaps, no overnight episodic reviews, no social sharing, no best-of clips ready for embedding the next day. No GIFs. None. Even the modern classics are representative of a singular focus and popularity that’s often impossible to achieve today. We were able to turn those episodes into classics and use them as pop culture talking points not just because they were good or entertaining, but because that’s pretty much all we had to watch.

For instance: Friends produced some fantastic Thanksgiving-themed episodes during its run, and they all smoke today’s competition in terms of popularity. “The One With the Football,” from season three, had 29.3 million viewers, earning a 19 rating and a 30 share. That was about par for the show, too. Even “The One Where Ross Got High,” from the sixth season, pulled in 19.2 million viewers (10.9 rating, 21 share). Numbers like that are an anomaly today. Unless you’re The Big Bang Theory, you’ll be lucky to pull in a fraction of that. New Girl, which has had some cute Thanksgiving stories, gets around 3 million viewers. Even a reality titan like The Voice only brings in 14 million or 15 million viewers at its peak. That’s a nice crowd, but small compared to what scripted series could draw just a few years ago.

With that fracturing of the landscape — both in terms of audience and distribution — comes a splintering of experience. It’s just not possible for scripted series, even popular ones airing episodes related to holidays, to have the kind of audience impact they used to have, and that means they’re necessarily going to be harder to assess in terms of being “classic” or influential or memorable. Instead, we get pockets of culture, as episodes and characters are prized by subgroups of viewers without breaking through in a broader way. Those episodes don’t have any less meaning for people just because the crowds watching them were smaller — off the top of my head, I’ve enjoyed the mishaps of the New Girl Thanksgiving episodes — but they are separate from the bigger body of pop culture in ways that other celebrated episodes never could be. Granted, not every show was a hit on the level of Friends, but that kind of success isn’t even an option now. You’d have to cancel everybody’s cable and hide their DVRs just to get that kind of singular focus for 22 minutes.

In other words, these lists of the best Thanksgiving episodes aren’t just familiar because they always cite the same series. They’re that way because they can’t be any other. The new classics will be yours and mine, but not ours.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • MGMcD

    Something I'd consider a more recent classic in the vein of the Friends episodes is the "Slapsgiving" episode of How I Met Your Mother. I used to keep that episode on my DVR and just watch it from time to time if I felt like laughing my ass off. Marshall's song never gets old.

  • I totally agree on this one. A lot of friends & colleagues reference this ep when Turkey Day is approaching.

  • Jifaner

    Man I loved Friends Thanksgiving episodes. It's a toss-up to which I like more, the football one or the Brad Pitt one, both were so so funny. And don't we all need turkey-eating pants? Yes, I think we do.

  • oilybohunk7

    I always hope that I get the opportunity to bust out my ability to name all 50 states in alphabetical order because of the Thanksgiving episiode of Friends where Ross can't eat until he names them. I'm easily entertained.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    There is a man who has held the title for Thanksgiving Win since 1989. And his name is Dr. Clifford Huxtable.

  • One other thing to consider: with the encroachment of the Xmas season into Thanksgiving and before, the Turkey Holiday has become swallowed into the greater "Holiday Season" which goes from right after Halloween to New Year's. Because of that, the individuality of Thanksgiving goes out the window.

    So it becomes a lot harder to create Thanksgiving-themed episodes when it becomes just another holiday. I mean, it's not like we have Memorial Day-themed special episodes.

  • JenVegas

    When I think about Thanksgiving themed TV the first thought it my head is Friends' The One Where Ross Got High. BUT! Not because of Ross but because of the Triffle that Rachel tries to make to prove that she can cook and completely f's it up because the cookbook pages are sticky and she ends up making a half triffle/half shepherd's pie and they try to eat it anyway. I laugh every time.

  • Kobie

    That's one of my all-time favorite episodes of that show.

  • dizzylucy

    What's not to like? Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!

  • jennp421

    And of course Joey loves it and eats everyone's pieces that are hidden throughout the apartment.

  • King Push

    "NOPE. Got it, and I got yours too!"

  • DeltaJuliet

    It tastes like feet !

  • birdgal

    The Middle does a Thanksgiving episode every year and this year's was quite good. I know Patricia Heaton gets a lot of hate around here (and trust me, I am as diametrically opposed to her political views as any other bleeding heart liberal), but the Middle is consistently funny and it still boggles my mind it isn't more popular. Watch it for Sue Heck alone, people.

  • kushiro -

    It might not be a classic, but the Thanksgiving episode of the League gave us Jeff Goldlum vinegar strokes.

  • pinkerton80

    Pangs on repeat. That's all you need forever.

  • jennp421

    "You made a bear! Undo it, undo it!"

  • Maguita NYC

    It is true that the last Thanksgiving-themed episode I remember watching and liking was the one on Friends. There hasn't been any new comedy show that would make me watch as religiously since Friends ended, and there hasn't been any TV commercial about a series' Thanksgiving episode that would make me want to watch.

    Maybe that era is not gone yet, but great comedic writing that pulls in new viewers has taken a break, because no matter how "cute" New Girl at Thanksgiving was, there's no way I want to watch that show: It would take better than cute to pull me in and give it a second try.

    You shouldn't give up hope just yet Daniel. Maybe the drama genre could get on that Thanksgiving train and give us a great heart-warming episode for the Holidays.

  • I can get not liking Zooey Deschanel. But Nick Miller deserves a second try.

  • Maguita NYC

    People keep telling me this, I believe I should give it a second try but starting with the second season. First season, they all got on my nerves.

  • Understandable. It's not for everyone. But Nick has an everyman quality that I like. He's relatable.

  • kimk

    I don't really have much substantive to add here, but felt compelled to point out that "with God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly" is one of my favorite TV moments/quotes ever. I have always felt WKRP is one of the great unsung comedies of the '70s/early '80s.

  • oilybohunk7

    "They are dropping like bags of wet cement."

  • Antique (webelos8)

    I remember watching that when it was first run. OMG.

  • kimk

    Me too! Watching it as a little kid I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. As an adult it still comes damn close.

  • Antique (webelos8)

    That was one of the best lines ever. I'd forgotten it, but I won't any more! :)

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