The answers are in here, and you can find them with your shirt on.
In general, I’m not a fan of holidays. As a certified grump who does not like other people to decide when I’m not going to work and is not particularly interested in travel when everybody else in the universe is traveling, and any sort of gathering of people I do not see on a regular basis tends to lead to some combination of rage and alienation for all involved. Thanksgiving may be my least favorite of all, as it takes those two inevitabilities and then adds indigestion to its parade of suffering.
But I do love a Thanksgiving episode of television, and I have found that not only do the Thanksgiving entries tend to be my favorites of series I love, but I also love a Turkey Day story from shows I don’t care about. (I never really watched Felicity, but have seen the first season’s “Thanksgiving” probably a dozen times.) So before we get to this week’s The Grinder (a show I do care about, and which presented a pretty solid Thanksgiving entry), here are my five favorite Thanksgiving specials. These aren’t definitive, but I will be watching them this week.
As previously mentioned, I was never really a regular watcher of Felicity, probably because I was actually a student at New York University while it was on the air. (As a rule, everybody I went to school with pretty much hated Felicity, mostly because NYU was replaced with the fictional University of New York, which for some reason drove people crazy.) But “Thanksgiving” is great, because it’s about the families we create when we’re on our own, be it in a college dorm or the wilds of adulthood. It drives home the idea that you are rarely put in a position to choose the people you can depend on, but you depend on them anyway. Few shows — particularly teen shows — have managed to capture that essence on screen.
Dawson’s Creek, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
On the other hand, Dawson’s Creek remains one of my favorite shows of all time. Admittedly, this probably wouldn’t land in my all-time top 25 episodes of Creek, but it’s still an excellent Turkey Day ep. It’s one of the show’s soapiest hours, with Jen’s mother randomly popping up for the big holiday dinner to reveal that Eve, the strange blonde in town toying with Dawson’s emotions, is actually Jen’s half-sister. It also features a solid use of Alanis Morissette’s “That I Would Be Good.”
The Sopranos, “He Is Risen”
One of the best mini-arcs The Sopranos presented was the head butting between Tony and Ralph, with much of their tension stemming from a dead stripper (and an invitation for a drink). This is a great hour of television if only for the appearance of Janice’s narcoleptic boyfriend Aaron, who gets a dinner roll tossed at his head for his trouble.
Mad Men, “Public Relations”
This is the episode wherein Sally Draper gags her way through her first Thanksgiving with stepdad Henry’s overbearing family. Sally Draper is the greatest television character of the 21st century. Come at me.
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, “Pangs”
The main story of this episode is sort of boring, with the Scooby Gang holed up at Giles’ house for Thanksgiving while a vengeful Native American spirit attacks them. It excels because it begins the fourth season saga of Spike, who has escaped from the militant Initiative, living with Giles. Their Odd Couple shtick is one of the comedic highlights of the series. Also, “Pangs” was a crossover event with Angel, which really boosted that show’s opening season.
“Giving Thanks, Getting Justice” won’t take the place of any of the above, but The Grinder passed yet another freshman year test with a solid holiday episode that also gives us a little more insight into how Dean Sanderson ended up back home. It opens, as it always does, with a scene from The Grinder, except instead of the Sanderson family watching at home, we’re actually on set for the shooting of an episode directed by Cliff Bemis (a delightfully oily Jason Alexander). The script calls for Dean to take his shirt off, but Dean waffles. He wants to get back to making shows that were about edgy ideas, but Bemis is mostly into the ratings draw that is Dean’s bare chest.
NEXT: A Thanksgiving surprise
The timeline jumps forward to the present day, when Dean discovers that Stewart’s family doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving anymore. Dean assumes that Stew has unresolved issues surrounding their parents’ divorce, but that’s not it (not entirely, at least). Stewart reveals that a few years back on Thanksgiving, he walked in on his mother engaged in a standing 69 (she was really into Crossfit at the time) with Dean Sr.’s former law partner Joseph Yao. Since then, Stewart has been too traumatized to celebrate Thanksgiving and has been unable to talk to his father about it, despite Debbie’s protestations. “I can keep this bottled up,” Stew tells her. “You’d be amazed at the things I can keep bottled up!”
Dean is determined to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family because he believes that is one more element of normalcy that he has been missing during his time in Hollywood. He insists that Stew spill the beans to their father, but Stewart bails and sits alone in his car in the garage. It takes another pep talk from Dean to get Stewart to act, and Dean tells him he’s got to get his dignity back from Yao. “I was with you until the end there. I feel like I have my dignity,” says Stew. “Nope, he owns it,” Dean tells him.
Like most everything involving the Sanderson boys and their good intentions, this confrontation ends up blowing up in their face. Dean Sr. knew about his wife’s dalliances with Yao all along, and the Thanksgiving episode was not an isolated incident. (He’s a little upset Yao neglected to lock the door.) “We lived the rock and roll lifestyle. Things were different back then,” Dean Sr. explains.
“It was five years ago, Dad!” Stew points out.
“Rock and roll never dies,” Dean Sr. tells him.
Meanwhile, in flashback, Dean attempts to keep his dignity, and his shirt. Fed up with having to be stripped to the waist in the law library and while cross-examining the Vice President, he tells Bemis no to taking his shirt off once and for all. “Do you want to come into more scenes already shirtless?” Bemis helpfully asks. Eventually he relents, telling Dean that they’ll shoot scenes with and without shirts, and then they can edit them together to decide which is right for the scenes.
Bemis reneges pretty much immediately, and Dean goes to the beach to sort out his thoughts. He’s visited by a magical surfing creature named Timothy Olyphant. “They used a shirtless take without consulting me,” Dean tells him. “They always do,” Olyphant replies. He encourages Dean to grab ahold of his integrity and walk away from the show if he needs to, which leads to this exchange: “You can’t take your shirt off unless it’s…” “Justified?”
So now we know how Dean ended up leaving The Grinder, and though he walked away with his head held high, he’s been double-crossed: The episode ends with a promo for The Grinder: New Orleans, which tells the story of the Grinder’s brother, played by a shirtless Olyphant. “The Big Easy just got hard,” Olyphant says. Yes it did, Grinder. Yes it did.