The holidays are always a time for celebration. Whether it's eating turkey, sipping cider, or going Black Friday shopping, there's so much to do and enjoy during Thanksgiving — not to mention the endless Thanksgiving-themed specials playing on TV.
With how many Thanksgiving specials there are on TV, it can be difficult to know what's worth watching and what's worth avoiding. Of course, there are also those Thanksgiving specials on the fringes of TV—episodes that barely have anything to do with Thanksgiving or present it in a less-than-wholesome manner.
Here are some of the most off-kilter, outside-the-box TV episodes we encourage you to watch this Thanksgiving.
1. The Simpsons: “Thanksgiving of Horror” (Season 31, Episode 8)
The Simpsons might have the market cornered for Halloween through their annual “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, but in 2019, the showrunners decided to extend the holiday horror a month further, resulting in Season 31's “Thanksgiving of Horror.”
Taking on a similar format to their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, “Thanksgiving of Horror” is divided into four separate segments (not counting the introduction) that present scary tales of Thanksgiving horror, parodying numerous movies and TV shows like Apocalypto, Alien, and Black Mirror.
The Simpsons are no stranger to holiday-themed episodes—the series' pilot itself being a Christmas special—and in the course of their lengthy run, they've produced quite several memorable Thanksgiving specials as funny as they are heartfelt.
Still, there's no denying that in three decades, there are only so many ways to tell a traditional Thanksgiving story, and thankfully, the showrunners' ingenious idea to frame a “Treehouse of Horror” episode to Thanksgiving made for a brilliant concept that mixed plenty of screams with some genuine laughs.
2. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “The Gang Squashes Their Beef” (Season 9, Episode 10)
If most Thanksgiving specials are about setting aside past problems and coming together to celebrate the holiday as a group, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Thanksgiving episode is the complete antithesis of that wholesome trope.
Looking to lay some of their tumultuous relationships to rest, the gang invites some of their most infamous enemies—including the McPoyles, Cricket, and Gail the Snail—over for a Thanksgiving dinner to “squash the beef,” with the party soon devolving into a violent food fight that quickly gets out of hand.
Full of dark humor, disgusting jokes, and unlikable characters, it remains the exact opposite of everything a decent Thanksgiving should be. It's one of those television episodes with viewers saying, “What exactly did I just watch?”—which, given some of the past episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, sounds about right.
3. Rick and Morty: “Rick & Morty's Thanksploitation Spectacular” (Season 5, Episode 6)
Given how meager the number of episodes Rick and Morty has released so far, the series hasn't had the opportunity to tackle all that many holidays. When Rick and Morty do turn their attention towards the holidays, though, they tend to go all-in, framing the animated duo's sci-fi adventures in a fresh and entertaining way.
In their first Thanksgiving-themed episode, Rick and Morty accidentally destroy the United States Constitution, setting loose a giant rampaging robot. To try and get out of trouble, Rick disguises himself and Morty as turkeys to receive a presidential pardon on Thanksgiving, triggering the release of a turkey-President hybrid that could mean the end of human civilization.
Yes, “Rick & Morty's Thanksploitation Spectacular” may not have the same level of drama or philosophical comments on one's place in the universe—things that fans associate and look forward to in Rick and Morty. But it does feature some great action scenes and plenty of hilarious banter between Rick, Morty, and the President, and in the end, what else could viewers want from a Rick and Morty Thanksgiving special?
4. South Park: “Black Friday” (Season 17, Episode 7 to 9)
Weeks prior to the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, South Park's boys break off into two separate groups based on their game console preference, leading up to a mass showdown at the mall on Black Friday. Meanwhile, fan-favorite character Randy takes on a job as a mall security guard, plotting to take advantage of the Black Friday deals himself.
Released during the peak popularity of HBO's groundbreaking Game of Thrones, South Park‘s “Black Friday” trilogy parodies notable elements of the series—alliances, betrayals, and political maneuvering—set around Black Friday. Its numerous hilarious send-offs to Game of Thrones—such as having the mall security guards appear as the Night's Watch, with the approaching Black Friday shoppers subbing in for the White Walkers—make this essential viewing for any fans of the HBO series out there.
5. Superstore: “Black Friday” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Like the above-mentioned South Park episode, Superestore’s “Black Friday” is centered more around Black Friday than it is Thanksgiving, making it another great special to watch for those souls brave enough to face the Black Friday crowds.
Taking place in the early morning just after Thanksgiving, the Cloud 9 team readies themselves for the imminent waves of Black Friday shoppers. At the last minute, most of the staff ends up suffering from food poisoning from a shared Thanksgiving potluck dinner, resulting in the store being desperately understaffed during the busiest day of the year.
If you've ever been shopping at a place like a mall or retail stores like Best Buy, Target, or Walmart after your Thanksgiving dinner, you know the utter anarchy that is Black Friday. While a few series have managed to frame that chaos from the shopper's point of view (The Simpsons‘ “Tis the 30th Season” or Scream Queens' “Black Friday,” for example), Superstore may offer the best glimpse of the retail horror from the actual employees' perspective.
6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Pangs” (Season 4, Episode 8)
Before Supernatural, before The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, before Riverdale, there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her numerous memorable adventures, killing off vampires and saving the world time and time again. Buffy may not have had very many holiday episodes, but when it did, it managed to incorporate the holiday into its signature horror format, producing unique specials that retained the series' signature blend of horror and comedy.
In the show's first and only Thanksgiving episode, Buffy prepares a Thanksgiving meal for herself and her friends while away at college. The celebration is soon interrupted by the return of a vengeful Native American spirit setting out to kill those who wronged his people.
There's an obvious elephant in the room when discussing Thanksgiving—that being the huge genocidal undertones of the holiday, with European colonizers driving off the Natives from their land and claiming it as their own. It's a subject that is largely ignored when thinking about the holiday, but it's important to remember the people who once held this land before centuries of warfare, disease, and forced migration drove them nearly to extinction. Buffy‘s “Pangs” touches upon the subject of Native Americans and their role in Thanksgiving in an all too real, all too horrifying manner, exploring our country's worst atrocities rather than glossing over them.
7. Tales from the Crypt: “What's Cookin'” (Season 4, Episode 6)
The television adaptation of the now-classic '50s comic, Tales from the Crypt, remains one of the most underrated series horror fans can see anywhere. Taking the classic comic book conventions of E.C.'s campy horror and combining it with uncensored violence and language, Tales from the Crypt made for one of the boldest, most unique horror anthologies since the days of The Twilight Zone.
In the episode “What's Cookin',” struggling restaurant owners Fred (Christopher Reeves) and his wife Elma (Bess Armstrong) are ready to close up shop when they are unable to make their rent payments. Just as they are about to foreclose, their helpful but enigmatic employee (Judd Nelson) starts providing them with delicious steaks that save the restaurant. All of that changes, though, when Fred finds out what his meat supply actually consists of.
Though not a Thanksgiving special, the fact that “What's Cookin'” revolves so heavily around food and the restaurant world makes it the closest thing Tales from the Crypt has to a Thanksgiving-themed episode. It's bold, disgusting, and bound to wreck people's appetite, but it's all worth it to see Reeves, Nelson, and a cameo appearance from Meat Loaf as a pestering landlord.
8. Family Guy: “And Then There Were Fewer” (Season 9, Episode 1)
For a fun change of pace from the run-of-the-mill Thanksgiving specials, Family Guy‘s Season 9 debut episode, “And Then There Were Fewer,” offers a refreshing, comedic portrayal of a dinner party gone wrong.
After nearly every major resident of Quahog is invited to a dinner in their honor at a secluded mansion, they are shocked to find a reformed James Woods seeking to make amends for his past wrongdoings. When Woods ends up murdered and a fierce storm prevents anyone from leaving, all the guests try to find the person responsible, all the while being killed off one by one.
Yes, “And Then There Were Fewer” isn't a Thanksgiving special—however, given the theme of everyone gathering to enjoy a nice dinner, it seems like the perfect thing to watch around the holiday, offering a fresh, more humorous take on a classic Clue-esque mansion murder mystery.
9. The Office: “Dinner Party” (Season 4, Episode 13)
Similar to Family Guy‘s “And Then There Were Fewer,” The Office‘s “Dinner Party”—one of the absolute best episodes of the entire show—isn't strictly a Thanksgiving episode. Yet given its subject matter, it's hard to ignore the similarities it has to a Thanksgiving special.
In the episode, Michael manages to trick Jim and Pam into attending a dinner party at his condo thrown by himself and Jan. Joining them are the always-odd pairing of Andy and Angela, as well as party-crasher Dwight and his elderly former nanny as a date.
Fans of The Office tend to cite the notorious “Scott's Tots” as the most cringeworthy episode of The Office there is, but a serious argument could be made that any minute of “Dinner Party” can outshine the pure awkwardness of “Scott's Tots.” Throughout the episode, the audience and dinner guests are treated to numerous passive-aggressive and full-out arguments between Jan and Michael, one of the most toxic relationships in modern television.
10. Mad Men: “The Wheel” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Mad Men is just as much a character study of its complex hero, Don Draper, as it is a shifting portrait of the advertising world throughout the 1960s. Few TV shows can make the claim for having as nuanced a main character as Draper, a skilled adman who often sacrifices his personal life for the benefit of his professional career.
In the season 1 finale of Mad Men, Don reveals to Betty that he has no interest in attending her family's Thanksgiving dinner. A fierce argument ensues, and in the episode's conclusion—when Don realizes how selfish he’s been—he returns home to find Betty has taken the kids and gone to her family's anyway, leaving Don to celebrate the holiday alone.
It's episodes like “The Wheel” that stand out as some of the earliest episodes that put Mad Men on the map. Its shifting focus on Don's storyline, as well as Peggy's sudden rise at the company being interrupted by unexpected news, all made for fantastic storytelling focusing on complex, realistic characters.
11. The Sopranos: “He Is Risen” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Like Mad Men, The Sopranos has always succeeded at focusing on its characters’ shifting perspectives and growing narrative evolution, taking them from shallow and two-dimensional to fully realized and intricate. This ongoing genesis can be seen in almost every single one of The Sopranos’ episodes, the Thanksgiving-themed “He Is Risen” being a great example.
Meeting a fellow patient in Dr. Melfi’s office, Tony begins seeing the patient outside of the office, their friendship soon turns more romantic in nature. As Meadow and Jackie Jr. spend more time together, the two begin to question their own burgeoning relationship.
Contrasting the two relationships between Tony and his daughter Meadow, “He Is Risen” does a masterful job juxtaposing the personal lives of the two Sopranos. Hampered by fears about settling down and wanting to enjoy a meaningless fling while they still can, Tony and Meadow embark on romantic escapades they aren’t sure of the longevity of.
12. The West Wing: “The Indians in the Lobby” (Season 3, Episode 7)
As with all the standout ensemble shows, The West Wing has proven itself time and time capable of handling a large cast of main characters, detailing complex stories centered around each of them. This trait can be applied to almost any episode of Aaron Sorkin’s TV series, including the show’s Thanksgiving special, “The Indians in the Lobby.”
As President Bartlet wrestles over where he wants to spend Thanksgiving, C.J. contends with an issue involving two Indigenous American representatives in the White House lobby who demand improved conditions on their reservation.
Handling the discussion of Native American representation in a tasteful manner, The West Wing helps depict the main characters’ attempts to defend every aspect of American life. It’s a wonderful episode with some poignant themes, especially C.J.’s struggle to obtain judicious corrections for Indigenous reservations.
13. American Dad!: “There Will Be Bad Blood” (Season 6, Episode 6)
As with Seth MacFarlane’s other adult animated series, American Dad! has always gone above and beyond when it comes to lampooning the holiday and the endless traditions associated with said seasonal events. In terms of Thanksgiving-themed hijinks, this characteristic pops up in American Dad!’s season 6 episode, “There Will Be Bad Blood.”
Priding himself on his ability to host the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, Stan invites his estranged half-brother Rusty to attend the Smith family’s holiday meal. In a break from tradition, Stan abruptly decides to attend Rusty’s own Thanksgiving dinner, the Smiths learning how much better off their uncle is in his opulent desert mansion.
It’s always fun to see Stan’s plans blow up in his smug face, and “There Will Be Bad Blood” doesn’t disappoint. Inflated by his ego, Stan has his entire worldview shattered when he visits Rusty’s manor house, learning a harsh lesson about humility in the process.