What We Learn From TV About Thanksgiving

A wealth of wisdom from annual Turkey Day episodes

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Everett

Who needs family on Thanksgiving when you have "Friends."

Thanksgiving can be a tough holiday, fraught with tension as old resentments threaten to bubble to the surface and the pressure to provide (or enjoy) the perfect meal brings out the worst in some people. Or at least that’s what I’ve learned about the holiday from watching television (which is where I, like plenty of other people, learned a lot of what I know about the world). Here are some other useful nuggets — nay, drumsticks — of wisdom to keep in mind as the holiday approaches, courtesy of some of the best Thanksgiving-themed television episodes ever:

The Butterball Hotline exists. In a 2001 episode of The West Wing, Josiah Bartlet learns about a telephone Q&A service provided by the turkey company, and the plot grinds to a halt as he tries it out from the Oval Office. What threatens to become a commercial for frozen poultry becomes a hilarious scene in which the President of the United States, trying to remain incognito, identifies himself to the operator as “Joe Bethersonton.” The previous year, we learned a great deal about the traditional presidential turkey pardon as well. So the series wasn’t always a straight-up civics class.

(MORE: Top 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Thanksgiving)

Turkeys are flightless. The first time I saw a particularly memorable episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, I wasn’t old enough to know for sure that turkeys are flightless birds. That was, until the station manager attempted a marketing promo in which a flock was released from an airborne helicopter, and I suddenly got a lot older. After hearing Les Nessman’s horrified live commentary from the scene and Dr. Johnny Fever’s summary that “the Pinedale shopping mall has just been bombed with live turkeys,” I haven’t ever forgotten it. As God is my witness, I’ll never think turkeys can fly.

Make a shopping list before you go out. In a 1989 episode of The Cosby Show, Cliff is sent out to pick up a last-minute item for the Huxtables’ Thanksgiving dinner in the pouring rain. The problem is that it isn’t the last last-minute item. By the time Cliff returns from his nth trip, he looks like he did his shopping at the grocery store on the Titanic. Making a list in advance can save you time, grief and pneumonia.

Time travel is not out of the question. Of course everyone remembers past Thanksgivings, but some shows have gone way into the past. For instance, Happy Days and Bewitched both journeyed back to the time of the pilgrims, an even longer journey than to the time of Happy Days and Bewitched. Failing that, the past may catch up with you, as on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the gang was attacked by the vengeful spirits of Native Americans over the Thanksgiving spread. And on the very day when we’re supposed to remember the friendly kick-off to a fraught intercultural relationship, too.

Don’t get the meal out of a can if you can help it. One episode of Top Chef tasked the cheftestants (a term coined by my old Television Without Pity colleague Stephanie Lucianovic) with creating a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner using only canned goods. Spoiler: they didn’t. Not since your college roommate served the cranberry sauce in the form of an upright cylinder with the stamped can numbers still visible on top has there been such a gap between expectation and realization.

(MORE: Children’s Movies Have Too Many Orphans)

You’re going to miss your Friends. No show has done Thanksgiving episodes so well, so consistently or so memorably as Friends. From Rachel’s disastrous trifle to Chandler’s punishment of spending Thanksgiving dinner in a box to the backyard football game, plenty of viewers would have rather missed Thanksgiving with their families than a Thanksgiving Friends episode. More recently, How I Met Your Mother has taken up the sitcom turkey torch. At least with the hand that isn’t slapping Barney.

So if you want to avoid both football and awkward conversation on the big day, it’s as simple as laying out a feast of DVDs and Hulu links. Your guests will leave happy and satisfied.

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