Last week’s “Modern Family” episode on ABC, “Three Turkeys,” featured a husband (Ty Burrell) trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner for his wife (Julie Bowen) for a change, leading to chaotic results. Another ABC series, “The Middle,” aired “Thanksgiving VI,” in which a family ends up forced to go to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner, the perfect holiday meal eluding them. If it feels like you have seen these stories before, well, you probably have. Each year plenty of shows serve up turkey-themed episodes and, while the storylines have barely changed over the years, there may be a bigger reason for the popularity of the often-beloved episodes.
Christmas on television is dominated by specials, many of which, such as the Rankin/Bass “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” are traditions held sacred by families across America. However, aside from possibly “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” Turkey Day has no equivalents.
In fact there may not be room for Thanksgiving specials. Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University, told the International Business Times: “There is a shortage of cultural space. The megalopolis of Christmas stretches too far.” With Thanksgiving in such close proximity to the December holiday season and many Americans’ minds already on Christmas before Thanksgiving even arrives, audiences might not have time to salivate over Thanksgiving specials. Short doses of holiday television on fans' favorite weekly shows fill the gap instead.
Another reason for this is simply business. November is a sweeps month for broadcasters and networks are still airing new episodes of series, as opposed to late December when the television world is largely on hiatus. Consequently, specials give way to new and original Thanksgiving-themed episodes of current shows.
The result of all of this, Thompson said, is Thanksgiving episodes "don’t become beloved over generations.” Instead, new Thanksgiving episodes each year give fans a fresh fix of holiday fun.
Fresh, though, might not be the right word. The yearly parade of Thanksgiving sitcom fodder has resulted in a cyclical retelling of the same storylines -- unwelcome family guests, ruined turkeys, Dad tries to cook -- the list goes on.
Even shows that have appeared to be more progressive, such as “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother,” which in recent years have popularized the “Friendsgiving,” pulling the holiday outside of the nuclear family, are not exactly treading new turf.
Thompson points out “The Bob Newhart Show,” with “Over the River and Through the Woods” in 1975, had Bob enjoy the holiday with his friends while his wife was out of town and “Cheers,” with “Thanksgiving Orphans” in 1986, had a “friendsgiving” nearly a decade before “Friends.” Thompson does acknowledge the appearance of family in Thanksgiving episodes has changed, with shows like “Modern Family,” literally, bringing more diversity to the table.
However, by and large Thanksgiving on television has remained pretty constant and the surprising thing is that audiences don’t seem to mind.
“Normally recycling stories is bad,” Thompson said, “but when it comes to holidays all bets are off.”
While the fact that few Thanksgiving episodes or specials have achieved significant staying power may account for this, as audiences might simply not remember that they have seen the same story before, Thompson points to a more meaningful explanation.
“If Christmas is about Santa and miracles,” Thompson said, “then Thanksgiving is about the fact that we aren’t perfect. We’ve grown up with this idea of the perfect Thanksgiving and there is no possible way to live up to it.”
The television world seems to reflect this fact. While Christmas specials are treated like mini-miracles that hold the secret to the holiday spirit, Thanksgiving on television, with its dinner disasters and familial chaos, is an ode to imperfection, a reminder not to sweat the things that go wrong and to be thankful for the things that go right.
While neither “Modern Family” nor “The Middle” (nor any other show) produced groundbreaking, original television with their Thanksgiving episodes this year, both shows were funny and touching in all the right ways. They weren’t perfect, but no one was asking them to be.
What are your favorite TV Thanksgiving episodes? Tweet your thoughts to @Ja9GarofaloTV.