Thanksgiving isn’t just an annual excuse to gather a cast of characters, put them in the same room as one another and remind audiences that they’re just as dysfunctional as every other family. The Thanksgiving special has become a key ingredient to making these fictional characters feel like actual people — whose personal and family lives more often than not mirror our own.
There are two shows that do this spectacularly well: Friends and Roseanne. If we look at the importance of the Thanksgiving special, and its foray into being more than a seasonal special, Friends has a large part to do with it. Not only was it one of the enthusiastic shows about Thanksgiving, using the holiday to throw the six main characters into a variety of situations and eventful arguments, but it was also one of the most self-referential.
Friends didn’t make its Thanksgiving specials feel like filler content, which it can often be. Instead, the show had a long running joke about the list of dishes that Monica would prepare for her friends, multiple callbacks to football games and the Geller Cup and, perhaps most importantly, built upon existing storylines to make the special feel less abrupt. One of the most memorable episodes is “The One with the List” from the show’s second season. Rachel and Ross just had their iconic first kiss and in an effort to decide which woman he should be with — Rachel, the love of his life or Julie, his current girlfriend — he made a list. Unfortunately, Rachel happened upon it and the two ended up fighting, the episode ending on a pretty sullen, if not somewhat melodramatic note.
Why’s that important? Because unlike every other Thanksgiving special, the holiday was the least important part of the episode. Instead, the focus was on two people who try to spend a day together with friends and celebrate one another while other, more important things were happening around them. It felt, above all else, like something that could actually happen during a holiday when tensions are rising and everyone is stressed out.
With episodes like that and “The One with Chandler in a Box” from the fourth season, Friends proved that Thanksgiving could be the perfect opportunity to focus in on the dysfunctional nature that holidays often bring to both friends and family. Much like “The One with the List,” the episode picked up directly after an intense conversation between Joey and Chandler that left the latter trying to win back the respect, trust and admiration of his best friend and roommate. The fact that it was Thanksgiving added the context for the added stress, as seen by Monica’s running around and other chaotic subplots, but the focus of the episode remained on Chandler and Joey trying to get through a holiday together while dealing with their own issues.
If Friends cemented the idea that a Thanksgiving episode could be more than 30 minutes of television revolving around food to modern television, Roseanne was one of the earliest shows to harpoon in on the dysfunctional family aesthetic. Each Thanksgiving special seemed to contain more issues — and feel more plausible — than the last, with asinine topics taking center stage. There’s an episode that deals with Darlene going through a period of teenage rebellion, discovering vegetarianism and refusing to eat with her family. There’s an episode where Roseanne learns from her mother that her sister, Jackie, was always regarded as special, leading to an all out fight at the dinner table. There’s an episode where Jackie informs her parents that she’s going to be a police officer, resulting in everyone at the table offering their opinion on the matter and bursting into hysterics.
In other words, each episode felt like something that a large group of people could probably relate to in their own lives. Roseanne did what few other shows were doing at that time: going for the mundane instead of focusing on exaggerating a storyline to make sure people knew it was separate from the rest of the season. We see this happen with other specials: the Christmas episode, the Halloween episode, the Valentine’s Day episode and the New Year’s episode, where the storylines are explicitly about the holiday and everything else is exaggerated to fit in. We see this with shows like How I Met Your Mother, New Girl and The Big Bang Theory, where everything feels overly ridiculous and less authentic.
It’s not just sitcoms, either, that have learned to use holidays like Thanksgiving to tell important, emotional stories. Aaron Sorkin used The West Wing to deliver politically-charged, relevant social commentary using controversial holidays like Thanksgiving, while also progressing the story of his characters forward. There was always a lesson learned from one of the characters, and the monologue often delivered by President Bartlet offered some glimpse into what was happening at that time in the country. Sorkin realized that he could use the holiday for something more important on his show than just timely, filler content.
Thanksgiving, almost more than any other holiday, feels like a chance for showrunners and writers to bond over the complicated feelings that it brings with it. It’s one of the few times that it feels like what you’re watching mirrors aspects of your own family or personal life, and that’s why the Thanksgiving special continues to stand out with each new show.
So this Thanksgiving, while you’re arguing politics with that one uncle you haven’t seen in a while and explaining why you’re still single to that nosy great-grandmother, throw on a classic episode and remember, we’re all a little dysfunctional during the holidays.