Iconic Thanksgiving TV Specials

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What do all the best Thanksgiving TV specials have in common? Catastrophe. Mangled centerpieces, arrests, and burnt turkeys: it’s all a part of what makes Thanksgiving on TV so entertaining. And then there’s the coming together, the family bonding, and the warmth of sharing a meal with loved ones.
TV is as much a part of the American Thanksgiving tradition as turkey and pumpkin pie, and it just wouldn’t be quite the same without holiday programming. This year, get in the holiday spirit by revisiting all your favorite classic Thanksgiving episodes with this list.
Roseanne — Sitcom fanatics know that one TV show took the Thanksgiving special to the next level season after season. That comes as no surprise, especially considering the show’s iconic intro featured the family sitting down for dinner. The tradition began in 1989 with the episode We Gather Together, where Roseanne and family gather ‘round the table and untangle family issues. During the sitcom’s nine-season run, there were five more Thanksgiving episodes, wherein characters dealt with some heavy subject matter as a family.
The Cosby Show — Thanksgiving with the Huxtables always included hijinks and hilarity. In The Cosby Show’s 1984 classic, Cliff’s Wet Adventure — which was dubbed “the funniest Thanksgiving episode in the history of television” — Claire sends Cliff to the grocery store on a rainy day, and he returns soaking wet. He keeps forgetting to get the correct items at the store and must return again and again. Cliff eventually makes it back with all the right groceries just in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
The Simpsons With 29 seasons and counting, it’s hard to pick a single episode of The Simpsons that perfectly captures the holidays in Springfield. But Bart vs. Thanksgiving is a solid contender. In this early episode, which aired in 1990, Bart angers the family when he accidentally destroys Lisa’s prized Thanksgiving centerpiece. To skirt punishment, Bart runs away and winds up in a soup kitchen. We won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that the storyline has a happy ending. For Simpsons historians, the episode has extra significance. It was the first episode where the creators depicted Lou as an African-American.
master of none show
Master of NoneNew TV shows are taking a stab at their version of the Thanksgiving special, too. Just this year, Master of None unveiled a particularly powerful episode chronicling a series of protagonist Dev’s and best friend Denise’s Thanksgiving dinners, beginning in the 1990s. Denise faces the challenge of coming out to her family and struggles with their slow acceptance. The show was so well-received that Aziz Ansari and co-writer Lena Waithe won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — Fresh Prince fans will remember a few Thanksgiving-themed episodes from the series, but the most memorable is without a doubt the two-parter, There’s the Rub from 1995. We’ll avoid spoilers, but just know that Philip and Will wind up behind bars. An earlier episode, Talking Turkey also chronicled Thanksgiving with the Banks family, only this time with a little bit less misfortune.
Cheers There are two Cheers Thanksgiving episodes, but there’s a good chance that the first one comes to mind when you think about the Cheers crew gathering around a Thanksgiving table. Hint: it involves a food fight! The 1986 episode, Thanksgiving Orphans, gets the gold medal for best Thanksgiving episode ever in our book. Hostess Diane — dressed in pilgrim garb, naturally — attempts to make a nice family dinner for her closest friends, but things don’t go exactly to plan. The series’ second Thanksgiving episode came much later, during the 11th season, with Ill-Gotten Gaines, but the first one remains a multi-generational favorite.
FriendsWhat’s Thanksgiving without friends? One of TV’s most lovable crews had one tradition that parlayed into every season: celebrating Thanksgiving together. Every single season had its own special Thanksgiving episode, beginning with The One Where Underdog Gets Away in 1994 and culminating with The One with the Late Thanksgiving in 2003. The most famous, arguably, was The One With the Rumor from 1998, where Jennifer Anniston’s then-husband Brad Pitt makes a cameo. If you don’t have time to catch up on all these classics before the holiday rolls around, we recommend the Friends Thanksgiving flashback episode from season five.
The Macy’s Day Parade —There are few holiday specials that are as big a part of the American Thanksgiving tradition than the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. For many households, it’s what plays in the background while the turkey roasts and the table is set. This year’s New York City Thanksgiving parade will take spectators through a tour of the decades, beginning on Central Park West with the 1920s and culminating in Times Square in the present-day. It will air on NBC on Thanksgiving Day beginning at 9 a.m.
Crazy about TV history? Make sure to explore our collection of music and entertainment books for some of the best tidbits of regional history, from Milwaukee to Broadway.