“This ain’t an episode of Growing Pains,” Lena Waithe’s character says in “Thanksgiving,” the Emmy-winning episode of Master of None that Waithe co-wrote and stars in. She’s right, obviously. Not only is Master of None a more highly evolved beast than the ’80s sitcom that gave the world a pre-born again Kirk Cameron, this particular episode of the show is in an entirely different league than most Very Special Episodes of television.
Master of None’s take on the Thanksgiving episode mostly uses the holiday as a setting. It’s a way to put Denise (Waithe) with her mom (Angela Bassett) and Dev (Aziz Ansari) year after year. (It was also a way to show optimism in the Trump era, by predicting back in May 2017 that we would survive until November.) As we follow Denise’s coming out and her mom’s gradual acceptance of it, we feel the familial pull of Thanksgiving, but we don’t dwell on it. Reverence for the holiday is baked right into the episode, like nutmeg in pumpkin pie. The way I remembered most Turkey Day episodes is that they use Thanksgiving in more of an empty mascot capacity, like a cornucopia. After growing an outsize appreciation for Master of None’s take on the classic TV trope, I was suddenly determined to find out if this diagnosis holds up. My self-prescribed mission: watch 11 Thanksgiving episodes in a row and see what I could learn about the holiday and/or life.
The series I chose run a wide gamut of modern and classic, comedy and drama, familiar and otherwise: The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Simpsons, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Gossip Girl, Bob’s Burgers, Friends, Martin, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, Seinfeld, and How I Met Your Mother.
Television is designed to make viewers feel familiarly cozy, and these episodes do that in overdrive. About midway through my Thanksgiving marathon, I had OD’d on the following clichés:
- People who don’t ordinarily cook cooking badly
- Somebody discovering The True Meaning of Thanksgiving
- Some member of the extended family being kind of a stinker (and then changing their ways, perhaps due to discovering the True Meaning of Thanksgiving)
Instead of making a drinking game out of this viewing party—take a shot every time crisp autumn leaves are shown or someone participates in naughty drinking—I looked for some lessons, and by God, I found them.
Lesson #1: If you don’t like Thanksgiving, don’t be weird about it.
On the off-beat cop comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is kind of a Thanksgiving Grinch. He is still scarred by memories of watching football alone as a child on Turkey Day, waiting for his single mom to get home. Over the course of the episode, he comes to appreciate the idea of making new Thanksgiving memories with the chosen family of his friend circle. (Never mind how limiting it may be to have your friend circle consist entirely of co-workers.) What struck me, though, was not the resolution of the episode but the lead-up to it. Peralta is constantly letting everyone know just how not into the holiday he is, raining all over their Macy’s Parade, as it were. It’s the worst possible approach for dealing with Thanksgiving and also anything else in life that other people like and you’re not a fan of.
Lesson #2: Don’t pretend to be grateful
The gang at the center of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are loathsome human beings. They were never going to do have a Hallmark-worthy Thanksgiving. When it’s their turn to celebrate the holiday, though, they at least start with their heart in the semi-right place by trying to make amends with some of the people they’ve wronged over the years. Of course, it doesn’t work, and the gang ends up locking all the people they’re meant to apologize to inside an apartment that is on fire. (I told you they were loathsome.) “I hate people who are different than me,” says Mac (Rob McElhenney) at the end of the episode. “Why pretend?” Why pretend, indeed! If you’re not feeling the gratitude aspect of the holiday, don’t fake the funk. Legitimate melancholy is more refreshing to be around than false cheer any day. Especially if it’s the year 2017 and there is perhaps an abundance of things about the world you’re not thankful for.
Lesson #3: Don’t exploit Thanksgiving for cash
On a holiday-set episode of The Office, Dwight (Rainn Wilson) builds an entire harvest festival as both a money-making scheme and a chance to fill the childhood void of having never been named the Hay King. (It’s exactly as pathetic as it sounds.) In the process of doing so, he loses his lady, Angela (Angela Kinsey.) That’s what happens when you value commerce over togetherness on one of the most delightfully corny holidays.
Lesson #4: Dance dance revolution
If at all possible, everyone should find time during Thanksgiving for a spontaneous but choreographed-looking dance number when your jam comes on. The entire Banks family did so during the Thanksgiving episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and my heart burst with surprise jealousy. Who knew?
Lesson #5: Create your own goofy traditions
Some shows tackle Thanksgiving once or twice during their runs, but Bob’s Burgers does it every year. The creators’ appreciation for the holiday is plenty evident, but perhaps never more so than during “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal.” Burger-flipping patriarch Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) agrees to pose as oddball landlord Mr. Fischoeder’s private chef, while the rest of his family pretends to be Mr. Fischoeder’s wife and kids. It would be a humiliating work detail for anyone, but it’s especially demeaning to Bob, who shares the Bob’s Burgers team’s love of Thanksgiving. In order to cope with having to serve his arch-nemesis instead of shooting for the perfect Turkey Day with his loved ones, Bob tries to squeeze in his annual holiday traditions in between his chefly duties. Through these moments, we see some blazingly original approaches to Thanksgiving traditions, particularly Turkey CSI: Miami, a forensics-themed game Bob plays with Tina (Dan Mintz.) If falling asleep while your uncle’s favorite football team gets destroyed feels like kind of a played-out routine, it’s nice to remember that you can still invent some new traditions.
Lesson #6: If Thanksgiving is ruined, there’s still time to make it work
A few of the episodes I watched featured a character “ruining” Thanksgiving. Only one, however, offered up a second chance. After Bart Simpson finally comes home after a thoroughly spoiled Thanksgiving on The Simpsons, the family eats lukewarm turkey sandwiches around the table, enjoying each other’s company. If you ever have to stick a fork in Thanksgiving, there’s still time for sandwiches—which require no forks given.
Lesson #7: Reliving past pain and getting depressed is what Thanksgiving is also about
Finally, there’s Friends, another show that has a particular affinity for Turkey Day. (The series has dedicated no fewer than 10 episodes to the holiday.) “The One with All the Thanksgivings,” however, may be the best of the bunch, because it is filled with fresh flashbacks that show all kinds of Thanksgiving trauma from the crew’s formative years (along with some memories of war-torn Thanksgivings from Phoebe’s past lives). Although mainly a device for putting Monica (Courtney Cox) in a fat suit, these flashbacks serve a broader purpose. They’re a reminder that, despite what’s depicted in most Thanksgiving episodes, family-centered holidays can be quite traumatic. Therefore, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to use the fourth Thursday in November to vent about the time your girlfriend dumped you on Thanksgiving (me in 2008) or an election just took place in which an erratic game show host became president (most of us in 2016). Remembering your most terrible Thanksgiving ever is bound to make the current one feel that much better.