Thanksgiving: Five classic TV specials from The Simpsons to Friends and Master of None

From Charlie Brown's uninvited guests to Monica and Chandler's surreal encounter with a turkey, the season always proves fertile ground for comedy

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 27 November 2019 18:06
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Friends: Monica wears turkey on her head in 'The One With All the Thanksgivings'

Thanksgiving has long provided rich pickings for America’s TV comedy writers.

Any occasion that requires reluctant relatives to be cooped up all day drinking, stewing over a heavy meal and struggling to behave themselves naturally invites tension. It also represents a golden opportunity to do something new with some of popular culture's favourite characters.

As America sits down to turkey and pumpkin pie, here’s our selection of five of the best Thanksgiving episodes from US TV.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

This Emmy-winning animation was the third seasonal special adapted from Charles M Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comic strip, following popular Christmas and Halloween one-offs.

Now regarded as an institution, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is aired on ABC every November.

When Peppermint Patty invites herself over to Charlie’s house for the season, the perennial worrier has to improvise a meal with the help of Snoopy, Woodstock and Linus, serving buttered toast, pretzels and jelly beans to their guest’s annoyance, prompting a falling out.

The Simpsons - “Bart vs Thanksgiving” (1990)

A moving story of jealousy and reconciliation, one of The Simpsons early high points was this from its second season, when Bart destroys Lisa’s homemade centrepiece for the dinner table and is sent to his room in disgrace.

Running away instead, Bart finds himself watching his neighbours’ joyful gatherings from the street and ends up at a soup kitchen, where he realises how lucky he truly is compared with the plight of Springfield’s less fortunate.

Sneaking back in via the tree house, he finds Lisa in tears and apologises for his destructive impulses.

The episode is also notable for the visit of Marge’s twin sisters Patty and Selma and austere mother Jacqueline Bouvier. Their ingratitude and constant criticism of Marge's abilities as a hostess an all-too-familiar experience for many.

Frasier - “A Lilith Thanksgiving” (1996)

Frasier was in its element by season four, and this episode in which the pompous radio psychiatrist (Kelsey Grammer) and his ex-wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) conspire to get their son Frederick into Boston’s exclusive Marbury Academy is particularly fine.

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As one disaster leads to another, Frasier and Lilith only manage to aggravate the headmaster, Dr Campbell (Paxton Whitehead), before ruining his dinner and having to surrender the turkey that Niles (David Hyde Pierce) has been busily preparing in a last-ditch bid to salvage the situation.

The sabotaging of Niles's plans is as delicious as it is entirely inevitable.

Friends - “The One With All the Thanksgivings” (1998)

The hugely popular NBC show often excelled at seasonal specials and this episode from season eight was one of its very best moments.

As Ross (David Schwimmer) bemoans getting divorced again, the group move to console him by recalling their own worst holiday experiences, teeing up a series of inspired flashbacks.

Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) recalls a past life in which she lost an arm as a nurse in the American Civil War before Monica (Courtney Cox) reluctantly recounts the events of Thanksgiving 1987, when a teenage Chandler (Matthew Perry) is overheard referring to Monica as “fat”.

Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Ross (David Schwimmer) in a classic Friends flashback

A year later, a much slimmer Monica makes a botched attempt to seduce Chandler in a confused bid for revenge. This leads to her dropping a kitchen knife and accidentally severing his toe.

In the present, the pair – now dating – reconcile when Monica appears at his door wearing a turkey on her head, complete with novelty sunglasses and a fez. Chandler laughs and inadvertently tells her he loves her for the first time.

Master of None – “Thanksgiving” (2017)

Dev (Aziz Ansari) has grown up not celebrating the holiday on religious grounds so has always spent the day with his friend Denise (Lena Waithe) instead.

Revisiting the years in flashback, we see Denise tell Dev she is gay as a teenager in 1999 but struggle to tell her mother Catherine (Angela Bassett), fearing her disapproval.

When she does come out in 2006, Catherine finds acceptance difficult but over the years is able to come to terms with the situation, encouraged by the example set by Denise’s aunt Joyce, grandmother Ernestine and by Dev. By 2017, she is able to welcome Denise’s new girlfriend Michelle as her guest.

An impressively frank piece of writing by Waithe that could only have come from hard-won personal experience.

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