Whether you’re going to be slaving away over a hot stove and playing host to family and friends on Thanksgiving, or you’re slated to attend a dinner elsewhere, you’ll no doubt encounter a little bit of familial stress along the way.
Plus, even if you’ve done a ton of advanced planning to try to prevent it, inevitably something goes wrong. Maybe the oven goes kaflooey. Or someone gets sick. Or there’s a big fight. Or one of your kids will break something. It’s at that moment when that Norman Rockwell picture you’d been concocting in your head about what a “perfect” Thanksgiving you were going to have with your family, explodes into a million pieces.
If, by some miracle, your Thanksgiving winds up being drama-free, bully for you! But if you, like many of us, experience unwanted drama, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone, not by a long shot. So to get folks in the proper mood to celebrate their imperfect, American Thanksgivings, I’ve combed through recent and past TV shows for examples which demonstrate that, at least as far as TV writers are concerned, family dysfunction and mishaps are a given on Thanksgiving:
Parenthood : During its second season, this tightly knit, big family was planning to gather at the home of the heads of the Braverman clan: Zeek and Camille, who were feuding because Camille wanted to take an art class with a man with whom she previously had an affair. But if that’s too soap opera-ish for you, surely the fact that Camille is a control freak when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner in HER kitchen - she’s got an oven schedule, a strict list of dishes and an aversion to letting anyone other than her teen granddaughter help her - is something to which you can relate.
The eldest Braverman offspring, Adam, fresh from laying seven people off from the shoe company where he works, learned that the company’s owner Gordon just sold the company. Oh, and Gordon, who was dating Adam’s sister/employee Sarah, was coming to Thanksgiving. Sarah’s son Drew was missing his dad, Sarah’s alcoholic ex, and another Braverman, Julia, was struggling with the fine line between indulging her daughter and disciplining her, while family members clucked their tongues in judgment. Even a “just for fun” family football game after the rather clenched meal turned into a proxy battlefield for the grudge Adam had against Gordon and the one Crosby had against his brother-in-law Joel about an elementary school play.
The Middle : During last year’s Thanksgiving episode, this half-hour sitcom chose to focus on familial power struggles, the awkwardness of bringing family members together for a dinner where the participants aren’t quite comfortable with one another . . . not that any of you have had that experience before. Your families are all easygoing, right?
The mom, Frankie, was upset that her mother wasn’t going to attend Thanksgiving dinner at Frankie’s house, so upset that she had a big argument with her sister over the phone over who should have dibs on their mom for the holidays. Meanwhile Frankie’s ‘tween daughter Sue was begging to have a mom-daughter apple pie baking session. Four words: Blood on the apples.
As for Frankie’s husband Mike, Frankie had to nag him to invite his father to Thanksgiving. Turned out that Mike’s father was in the hospital recovering from the hip surgery about which he’d told no one. When Mike went to invite his brother Rusty to Thanksgiving, he learned that Rusty lost his house in a fire and was living in a tent. He’d told no one about his predicament either.
thirtysomething : An oldie but a goodie, the late 1980s/early 1990s era drama thirtysomething highlighted the bewildering process of going from being a couple to being a family through the stories of the married couple, Hope and Michael.
In its first season, Hope, usually an accommodating hostess, told Michael she didn’t want to have a big Thanksgiving at their house for their daughter’s first Thanksgiving. Hope just wanted to organize her old photos, wax nostalgic about her carefree days and chill. But Michael pressed her, “It’s not such a big deal if everybody pitches in.”
“I know I’m a horrible person,” she said. “How dare I want to spend a quiet weekend with my husband and daughter.” Without Hope’s help, Michael said he’d organize Thanksgiving at their house. But then friends showed up Thanksgiving morning bearing a still-frozen turkey. Hope and Michael both got sick. One couple had to take their kids for fast food because dinner wasn’t even close to being ready. By Thanksgiving night, everybody wound up hopping onto Hope and Michael’s bed after Hope had a nightmare that she’d died of “aggravation” and Michael had replaced her with a mean wife who sent Hope’s daughter to boarding school.
Mad Men : Got any blended families in the Thanksgiving mix this year? The Thanksgiving episode from Mad Men’s fourth season is for you. Betty Francis - who’d divorced her husband Don Draper only months before marrying Henry Francis - labored to make a good impression on her new mother-in-law at her mother-in-law’s elaborate, formal Thanksgiving dinner.
Unfortunately for Betty, when her mother-in-law noticed that Betty’s daughter Sally wasn’t eating and asked the girl if she liked the food, the child answered honestly. “No,” Sally said, noting that she was particularly disenchanted with the cranberry sauce. Horrified, Betty declared that Sally loves sweet potatoes then, to prove her point, shoved a forkful into the girl’s mouth. Sally gagged and spat the food onto her plate. The icing on the cake: Sally yelled, “Ow! Stop pinching me!” as Betty dragged her from the dining room.
Things were no better for her ex-husband Don who had hired a prostitute for the afternoon and begged her to repeatedly slap his face. Just like the Pilgrims . . .
Once and Again : In the three seasons of one of my favorite TV shows, Once and Again handled the messiness and high expectations for Thanksgiving gatherings with intelligence, poignancy and occasional outbursts of vitriol.
In its freshman season, the lead couple - the man, Rick, was divorced with two kids, the woman, Lily, was separated with two kids - spent Thanksgiving apart. Lily’s father, who was opposed to Lily throwing her serial philanderer husband out of the house, brought that estranged husband to Lily’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, against Lily’s explicit wishes, and a giant, shouting match ensued. Rick spent the day feeling lonely - he wasn’t invited to Lily’s - as his ex-wife had the kids for dinner at her house.
The following year, Lily and Rick spent their first Thanksgiving together at Lily’s, with both of their mothers and all of their kids in tow. However it didn’t go smoothly because Rick, overwhelmed by the fact that his daughter was anorexic and that he was warring with his teenage son, got drunk and moody. Rick even bellowed at his son at the dinner table in front of everyone.
In Once and Again’s final season, Lily and Rick were a married couple and Lily aspired to host the perfect Thanksgiving. Alas, it was not to be. Why? A finicky sink requiring emergency plumbing services, a mandatory high school Thanksgiving day play rehearsal for two of the kids (said rehearsal wound up being relocated to Lily and Rick’s living room), a husband who had a work meeting, simmering resentment between Lily and Rick’s daughter’s and a kitchen fire all conspired to thwart Lily’s vision of ideal family togetherness. And, in a reversal from season one, Rick’s ex-wife was the one who was alone, nostalgic for Thanksgivings when she and Rick were happy and married.
Party of Five : Whenever I think about TV families and Thanksgiving episodes, the 1990s drama Party of Five comes to my mind when the five, orphaned Salinger children, including their infant brother, had their first Thanksgiving without their parents who’d been killed, months earlier, by a drunk driver.
At first, the kids wanted to skip the holiday because they didn’t feel like celebrating. Then, when they learned that the drunk driver who’d accidentally killed their parents had just gotten out of prison, they really had no desire for Thanksgiving. But in the end, the five Salingers wound up having Thanksgiving dinner, albeit the day after Thanksgiving, giving thanks that at least they were still together.
All of the Thanksgiving episodes were cautionary tales for viewers not to get their hopes too high that a glossy magazine-quality Better Homes & Gardens Thanksgiving was in store for them. The take-home message: You’re better off heading into the Thanksgiving holiday with a hearty sense of humor and low expectations. And perhaps, one hearty glass of wine.