Before the days of DVR and digital downloads, our holiday entertainment options were limited to whatever the networks decided to air. Once that delicious Thanksgiving meal was resting in our bellies, we tuned in by the millions for primetime TV, took in those holiday movies (complete with commercial interruptions), and were at the mercy of syndication schedules.
Now, you can watch all of the greatest Thanksgiving television episodes just by streaming on Netflix or spending a couple dollars to buy an episode. And that makes a "Best of" list more than mere reminiscing... it's a vital tool for your holiday enjoyment.
And so, we spent hours watching all of our favorite TV families and picking the best episodes for you to watch this weekend. We looked for episodes that can stand on their own—for first-time viewers and fans alike. And we sought out episodes that capture the perfect combination of humor and sentiment that defines Thanksgiving.
We laughed, we cried, we cringed. Now it's your turn to enjoy the family feuds, cooking calamities, and turkey troubles of the ten best Thanksgiving episodes of all time.
10. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"Pangs" (1999: S4, E8)
While "Pangs" wouldn't be counted as one of the best Buffy episodes, there's something here for everyone: Buffy fretting over trivial things, Willow whining about her guilty conscience, Xander getting ancient syphilis, Angel brooding in the background, Giles bringing the family together, and an ancient Native American spirit seeking revenge for the brutal annihilation of his people.
But what makes this episode special is Spike. He's starved, threatened, burnt in the sunlight, tied to a chair, and punctured by arrows—but still retains that trademark James Marsters charm.
Spike: "You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not going around saying, 'I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it.' The history of the world isn't people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story."
9. Grey's Anatomy
"Thanks for the Memories" (2005: S2, E9)
As Thanksgiving episodes go, this one is definitely on the sad side. The main plot line of Meredith and the comatose father will tug on your heart strings. Thankfully, we can smile through Izzie and Burke's surgery-style dinner preparation and the O'Malley family hunting tradition. If you want to really ponder the importance of family this Thanksgiving, Grey's Anatomy is here to help.
Izzie: "We work 18 hours a day, six days a week, 50 weeks a year. We don't really have any time for our families. We don't have friends that aren't doctors, but we have this one day, one day where we get to be like everybody else. One day to be normal. One day where nobody lives and nobody dies on our watch. It's like a gift."
8. WKRP in Cincinnati
"Turkeys Away" (1978: S1, E7)
The climactic moments of this episode have become the stuff of television legend. Evidently based on real life events, Mr. Carlson, feeling left out with the new station staffing plan, decides to stage a secret Thanksgiving Day promotion. The promotion? Throwing a dozen turkeys out the side of a helicopter into a shopping mall parking lot. Richard Sanders gives his best performance as Les Nessman, the incompetent reporter detailing the carnage. While Carlson's final line of the episode has become the most oft-quoted moment from the episode, it's Sanders that puts it over the edge for me. If you haven't seen it, it's well worth 25 minutes of your holiday weekend.
Les: "The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement."
7. How I Met Your Mother
"Slapsgiving" (2007: S3, E9)
What Friends did for Thanksgiving in the late 90s and early 00s, How I Met Your Mother is doing for the late 00s and early 10s. Ted and the gang have turned in quite a few memorable holidays, but I boldly submit "Slapsgiving" as the best of the best. The dreaded slap bet shines at center stage, from Marshall's slap puns to the menacing computer countdown and the slap song... it's not an episode we'll soon forget. And can you believe that this is the episode that introduced us to Ted and Robin's major/general/corporal saluting gag, too?
Barney: "Please, you took out all the suspense. In a horror movie, the killer does not grab a bullhorn and announce 'Attention unsupervised teens here at the lake house: At precisely three AM, I am going to jump out of that closet right there and hack you all up with a machete. P.S. Fire is my one weakness.'"
Note: Alyson Hannigan is the only actor to appear in two of our top 10 episodes! I wonder if she tapped into Sarah Michelle Gellar's frantic kitchen persona for Lily...
6. New Girl
"Thanksgiving" (2011: S1, E6)
Primetime Thanksgiving specials aren't dead yet! We may not be in the heyday of "Must See TV," but Zooey Deschanel seems to determined to keep awkward holiday memories alive for the new generation. Jess's first Thanksgiving is a series of impressive, laugh-out-loud missteps, but she still manages to get the boy (an equally awkward Justin Long). How's that for Thanksgiving cheer?
Jess: "I want to take him down to Chinatown and slice him off a piece of this pumpkin pie, okay? I want to do all the things that you do in a bedroom, with him, okay? I want to do it standing up and sitting down, and half-up and half-down, and the Wiggly One, and the Bear Attack, and the Claws-in-the-Head, and the one that the figure skaters do, and the What's For Lunch, and... the Give Me That Hat!"
And extra kudos to Schmidt's kitchen neuroses, which give this episode an extra lift to greatness.
5. Mad About You
"Giblets for Murray" (1996: S3, E8)
The best Thanksgiving episodes pit neurotic family against kitchen disasters. And that brings us to Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. As if overbearing parents weren't bad enough, Jamie and Paul go through half a dozen turkeys in a bizarre (and hilarious) series of mishaps. There are so many genuine laugh-out-loud moments in this episode, but what really elevates it is the way all of these meddling relatives secretly pull together to save the day. Now that's the true Thanksgiving spirit.
Mrs. Stemple: "I am thankful for my beautiful daughter, her wonderful husband, her lovely home, her exciting job... and for Lisa."
Lisa: "I'm thankful I have therapy tomorrow."
"Hungry Man" (2009: S4, E9)
This is a stand-out episode in what is perhaps the best season of Dexter. John Lithgow's portrayal of patriarch serial killer Arthur Mitchell won't exactly leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but it'll probably make you plenty thankful. Vince adds a bit of holiday levity, but it's really the climactic confrontation between Dexter and Arthur that will make you want to tune in.
Dexter: "Seeing them like that... he's destroyed everyone in that family."
Harry: "That's what happens to people who live with a monster."
"Thanksgiving Orphans" (1986: S5, E9)
For more than a decade, millions of Americans wanted to be "where you can see troubles are all the same," and that place was Cheers. In this unforgettable episode, we watch Frasier be gloomy, Norm struggle with the turkey, and Diane irritate everyone. But for two glorious minutes, we watch the single best food fight in TV history, and we want to be part of that dysfunctional family.
The build-up, the execution, the denouement, and that final punchline... it doesn't get much better than this.
Frasier: "You know, I'm glad to see that you're all fending off the holiday blues. This time of year is filled with arguments, suicides, murders. I guess it's the seasonal happiness of others tends to throw a glaring light on the flaws in our own personal relationships. But gee, of course, that's no problem for me. I'm alone."
2. The West Wing
"Shibboleth" (2000: S2, E8)
Not only is "Shibboleth" one of the best Thanksgiving episodes of all time, it is one of the best West Wing episodes of all time. Yes, we love to see CJ squirm over the pardoning of the turkeys—and Bartlet drafting a turkey into military service.
But the meat of the episode (no pun intended) is the nuanced treatment of freedom of religion. Leo and Toby tackle school prayer and President Bartlet sits down for a moving interview with a Christian Chinese refugee. The icing on the cake? The perfectly sentimental scene where Charlie gets a gift from the President.
President Bartlet: "We can be the world’s policemen. We can be the world’s bank, the world’s factory, the world’s farm. What does it mean if we’re not also... They made it to the New World, Josh. You know what I get to do now? I get to proclaim a National Day of Thanksgiving. This is a great job."
"The One Where Ross Got High" (1999: S6, E9)
Okay, so there are no turkeys on heads, no awkward flashbacks, no football antics, and no saucy Brad Pitt. But this Season 6 episode is, in the opinion of this writer, the very best in a long line of excellent Friends Thanksgivings. If you haven't watched it recently, you must. There's one moment of comic gold after another, and just the perfect mix of friendship and family. It holds up surprisingly well almost 15 years later.
Ross: "It tastes like feet!"
Joey: "I like it."
Ross: "Are you kidding?"
Joey: "What's not to like? Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Gooooood!"
With hundreds of Thanksgiving episodes to choose from, it was hard to limit our picks to just 10. If you finish watching the top ten, here are some more Turkey Day treats to enjoy.