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Why Are There So Many Memorable TV Episodes About Thanksgiving?

Posted: 11/27/08 09:19 PM ET

Whether it's sweet potatoes, cornbread, yams, or turkey, every family has their own favorite traditional Thanksgiving recipes. Families aren't the only ones who know how to cook up something, though. Television also has its own special Thanksgiving recipe. And it feeds an audience.

You start with one premise of your choosing:

  • The family gets together

  • Two families get together

  • The neighbors come over to join

  • Someone is making their first Thanksgiving

Then you add a little spice (I like it in hijinks form):

  • The food gets burned/ruined/undercooked/consumed

  • No one/too many people show up

  • The person who no one thought would come is there

  • There's more than one dinner to attend

  • The family fights

Then you let it cook for 22 to 44 minutes, and - Enjoy!

Not only does it seem like every television show follows this recipe, but so many of those episodes seem like extraordinary moments. For me, it's Rachel's trifle tasting like feet on "Friends," but the Thanksgiving episode was unforgettable ten years earlier on "Cheers," ten years before then on "The Bob Newhart Show," and at so many points in between. Thanks to the omni-coverage of the Internet, you can even watch, rank, and take quizzes about Thanksgiving episodes. What is it about Thanksgiving that makes for such good television?

The answer lies at the core of both television and the Thanksgiving holiday.

Good television is always developing, and tension is the engine that drives those changes; it is what propels episodes forward. Sometimes the tension exists between two characters, other times it is between a character and a situation. But discomfort, whether played for laughs or character growth, is a key aspect to good television.

Ostensibly, Thanksgiving is unrelated to television's tension addiction. After all, it is a day dedicated to thanks and appreciation. Ideally, it would be celebrated in an introspective and comfortable way. Practically, though, it rarely is. The concept you hear most associated with Thanksgiving is "tradition." And if Fiddler on the Roof taught us anything, it is that traditions often become cyclically referential. The fact that it is a tradition becomes more important than the original rationale for the tradition, in Thanksgiving's case- appreciation and thanks. In our own lives, what Thanksgiving conceptually represents is often dwarfed by the pressure to keep your tradition.

This need to subscribe to a tradition usually results in one of two outcomes. In the first, people return home in an attempt to recreate Thanksgivings past with their family. Full grown, responsible adults are transformed back into the roles of the children they once were, Thanksgiving uneasiness arising out of the pressure to approximate the family unit that once existed (or was assumed to exist.) In the second, people, through the creation of a meal all their own, forge ahead with a new group and new traditions. Here, the tension rises in the exact opposite way than the uneasiness of the first scenario in this paragraph. Rather than struggling with the difficulty of being an adult thrown into a child's role, these are adults being thrust into fully adult roles. It is the struggle to become who you eventually need to be. In both cases, meal goers are attempting to play an unfamiliar role within their Thanksgiving dinner community. That is why Thanksgiving is so often fraught with anxiety.

In a sense, this is exactly what the first Thanksgiving was. It was an amalgam of individuals and groups fused through a manufactured sense of community, with people thrust, tentatively, into foreign roles. And in that way, the pilgrims and Indians were the precursors to the gangs from Friends and Cheers, and the gang that is set to gather at your Thanksgiving table, as well. In television, the message always seems to be a simple, but beautiful one: Thanksgiving sure wasn't what we planned, but isn't what it actually turned out to be, sort of, well, nice? In a way, that is the lesson of the first Thanksgiving too. That first meal certainly didn't turn out the way the Indians were expecting but, despite the subsequent horrors, America turned out to be, sort of, well, nice. And I guess, I hope that's the truth of life. It never seems to be exactly what we planned, but it's nice as it is. And that reality is something to truly be thankful for.


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