If there’s one thing television loves to do, it’s ruin Thanksgiving. According to most shows, this holiday of gratitude, football and binge-eating is also a huge source of stress, complication and heartbreak. Why? Well, it’s hard to write a compelling plotline about a harmonious family meal where all the food is delicious and everyone helps load the dishwasher before heading to bed to sleep off the tryptophan.
More than that, most of us truly are a little anxious about mixing together extended family and alcohol for a long period of time — without the magic of things to save us, Thanksgiving means old conflicts, secrets, political dissonance and betrayals somehow find their place at the table right alongside the gravy boat.
If you are into the idea of turning Thanksgiving into a total fiasco, where everyone eventually learns a lesson and comes together to appreciate their lives and relationships anyway … there are at least a few tried-and-true roads to take.
#5: The ‘Dinner Is Ruined!’
The #1 classic “Thanksgiving is ruined!” trope, nothing says worst Thanksgiving ever like ruining the feast itself. Gotta hand it to “Friends” for having some of the best worst Thanksgiving episodes of all time: Rachel’s (Jennifer Aniston) accidental jam-ladyfinger-custard-beef trifle in “The One Where Ross Got High” is an iconic mishap — Screener even made it one year, to mixed results. While the trifle didn’t ruin the entire Thanksgiving that year, it certainly ruined dessert time.
But not all of us were born to cook, and that’s fine too — just make sure somebody who loves being in charge actually is, or you might end up without a bite to eat, or worse. It’s important to be realistic about what you are great at, and when it’s better to lean out a little.
“The OC’s” Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) really did try her best in season 1’s “The Homecoming.” It’s not her fault her son’s hooking up with two girls at the same time, her dad is dating her Newpsie neighbor, her other son is running around Chino to help out his jailbird bro, and her husband is trying to set up her ex with his coworker. Whew! You’d get wasted on frozen margs and let the turkey catch on fire, too.
#4. The ‘Desperate, Thankless Search’
Sometimes Thanksgiving can’t be enjoyed unless a certain task is achieved. Before relaxation, turkey and a lot of wine, an epic journey must be made. Sadly, said journey rarely ends in satisfaction.
In “Happy Endings” Season 3 “More Like Stanksgiving,” the 1/16th Navajo Dave (Zach Knighton) treks all over Chicago — getting his car stolen, bartering his precious leather jacket, getting in trouble for scalping tickets — to find clams to prove his adherence to traditions of the first Thanksgiving. Turns out primitive clam recipes are disgusting, the clams had to be dumped and his efforts were in vain. Thanksgiving Day? More like Thanksgiving Dave.
The “Workaholics” boys get a rude awakening in Season 2’s “6 Hours Til Hedonism II” when Blake (Blake Anderson) realizes he doesn’t have his passport and therefore can’t go to Jamaica for some prime sex resort time.
After a mad romp through Inland Empire suburbia and a semen-soaked porn theater (or “picture house,” depending on who you ask), Blake scores his counterfeit passport and jet-sets to Jamaica, only to discover that all the hotties are back home eating Thanksgiving dinner with their families and jerk chicken fusion lasagna sucks.
#3. The ‘Bad Romance’
As “New Girl’s” Schmidt (Max Greenfield) would say: Thanksgiving is the least sexy holiday in America, but that doesn’t stop anyone from feeling the love.
Nobody could claim that Mindy Lahiri’s (Mindy Kaling) love life is not a hot mess, and she proves it in Season 1 “Thanksgiving” episode. Running into her old blind date (Ed Helms) — with a younger, hotter girlfriend — at her vanished-without-a-trace-later best friend Gwen’s (Anna Camp) house, Mindy makes the ill-fated decision to seduce him one room away from the dinner table. Not a great look.
Speaking of “New Girl” — and ill-fated decisions — Jess (Zooey Deschanel) invites fellow teacher Paul (Justin Long) to Thanksgiving at the apartment as their first date, which only ends up everyone being annoyed — let us be thankful to admit that Paul truly was so annoying — and a turkey getting “cooked” in a dryer. And don’t forget the next season, when Jess unsuccessfully tries to “Parent Trap” her divorced parents back together after throwing two separate Thanksgivings in “Parents.”
Jess, why aren’t you listening to Schmidt?! This is not a sexy holiday!
And to give “Friends” one more shout-out, who could forget “The One with Chandler in a Box,” with, spoiler, Chandler (Matthew Perry) spending Thanksgiving literally in a box as penance for kissing Joey’s (Matt LeBlanc) girlfriend. While the group eventually relents and lets Chandler out of the box, she eventually breaks both their hearts. Sorry, dudes. It’s gonna be fine.
#2. The ‘Family Dramarama’
Whether it’s a deep dark family secret or an uncomfortable run-in with the in-laws, nothing knows how to ruin a good Thanksgiving like family. Varieties of Thanksgiving drama have no bounds.
“How I Met Your Mother” enjoyed a handful of great Thanksgiving episodes (“Slapsgiving,” anyone?) including not one but two Thanksgiving pregnancy scares. Season 1’s “Belly Full of Turkey” has the most impressive Thanksgiving ruiner of all: Lily (Alyson Hannigan) freaking out at the dinner table about possibly carrying one of the Erickson clan’s huge-ass babies, peeing on a pregnancy stick outside of a Midwest convenience store and getting hauled off to jail for public urination. Hooray holidays!
Jack MacFarland (Sean Hayes) finally (?!) comes out of the closet to his mother in “Will & Grace’s” “Homo For the Holidays,” only to find out there’s another family secret out there: His dad is not his biological father.
Family also means doing things you sometimes don’t want to do, like … going to prison? In “Friday Night Lights” Season 4 “Thanksgiving,” Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) makes a pretty big sacrifice for the clearly terrible idea that was the Riggins brothers’ illegal chop shop. Post-dinner prison instead of pumpkin pie? Clear eyes, full hearts, no thanks.
#1: The ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’
Surprise dinner guests can always throw a wrench in the works. Going somewhat against the “family is what you make it and anyone can be family at Thanksgiving” trope, these strangers make Thanksgiving an uncomfortable affair for all involved. Moral of the story: don’t bother being friendly to strangers during the holidays, or any other time. Just kidding. Probably.
“Beverly Hills 90210” loves a good Thanksgiving episode, and golden boy Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) loooves to lend a helping hand to people who may or may not want it. In Season 3’s “The Kindness of Strangers,” Brandon brings a homeless man (David Sherrill) to the Walsh family Thanksgiving, with very mixed reactions from the rest of the clan. Leave it to Jim Walsh to be all testy and cranky about it and make everyone feel all awkward.
Eric Foreman (Topher Grace) is, as his dad will forever attest, “a dumba**,” on Thanksgiving and every other day of the year. In “That 70’s Show’s” Season 1 “Thanksgiving” episode, Foreman makes out with his sister’s dinner guest. Donna (Laura Prepon) finds out, things go predictably south, and once again Eric is the main winner of life.
Chanel (Emma Roberts) learns the hard way that rich family does not always mean cool family at “Scream Queens'” Season 1 Thanksgiving. A first-time Thanksgiving guest of Chad Radwell (Glen Powell), his family hates her so much that his father offers her a $50,000 check to leave and never come back. Sometimes it’s better to spend Thanksgiving in a murder sorority than play Pictionary with a bunch of rich jerks.
As many of the best Thanksgiving episodes will tell you, Thanksgiving isn’t always about being grateful for the family you were born into; it’s finding and appreciating the family you choose for yourself.
A disastrous attempt at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner can press characters to flee their traditional family structures and holiday expectations to join with like-minded friends and social circles they’re built for themselves, and hopefully, inspire some of us to do the same. A bit sappy — but then again, so’s the idea driving Thanksgiving itself.