Halloween TV episodes might be my favorite part of Octoberween. To see a cast of characters I know and love go through a series of enjoyably spooky scenarios through the filter of the show’s aesthetic? Well, it’s a little slice of heaven for me. And while I’m sure many people find their taste of the divine in Christmas specials, there’s another major holiday that programs occasionally (but notably less frequently) sink their teeth into: Thanksgiving. While Turkey Day has never really been my jam—due to a message that manages to be simple yet entirely aggravating when delivered with condescending zest by “Kids These Days” relatives or preachy TV shows—I do think that it uniquely fits the sitcom format. There’s a common recipe for Thanksgiving: football, family, and food. Because sitcoms (especially today) thrive off of playing with the recipes of television past and tend to focus on families of all kinds, they are in a unique position to capitalize on the meaning of November’s final Thursday.
For anyone who has seen Bob’s Burgers, it shouldn’t surprise you that a) the series has done a Thanksgiving episode each November for the past 4 years and b) it captures the spirit of the holiday at its best. If you haven’t seen Bob’s Burgers, here’s the short version: it’s an animated series about the Belchers, a family that runs a burger joint. Although they struggle to make ends meet, and the three kids are various shades of weird, the Belchers are an unabashedly loving family who support each other through obstacles of all sorts. Thanksgiving, then, seems like a perfect fit; what could be better than a series that quietly puts forth the importance of a loving and accepting family for a holiday that asks you to be thankful and spend time with your family?
Bob’s Burgers puts itself above most other specials, though, by questioning our notions of how we should be thankful and what the word “family” means. While Bob is a Thanksgiving fanatic with an unending set of beloved traditions, the series never lets him fully experience those traditions. The writers would be a bit foolish to do otherwise; after all, what is a sitcom without some conflict? In every single special, something prevents Bob from spending all day making a turkey and micromanaging his family. In “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal,” Bob has to cook for his landlord because the offer of 5 month’s rent free is irresistible. In “Turkey in a Can,” Bob’s meticulous recipe (which calls for extensive brining) fails repeatedly because someone keeps dropping the bird in the toilet. In “Dawn of the Peck,” he’s on strike because his family wants to ditch home for a parade, and in “Gayle Makin’ Bob Sled,” he has to go help Linda’s sister with increasing peril.
IF YOU CARE ABOUT SPOILERS, THEY’LL BE ALL OVER THE PLACE
Yet, despite Bob’s plans consistently going awry, each episode has a happy ending. Regardless of whether the meal is made in accordance with Bob’s vision (hint: it almost never is), the show finds resolution in the characters’ improved understanding of how to continue loving and supporting each other, all the while growing as individuals. In “Proposal,” Bob’s disgust toward his family’s performance as Mr. Fischoeder’s wife and kids must turn inward, because he realizes that they were similarly performing for the traditions he set out for them. He realizes that Thanksgiving can be more organic, and that the most important part is that they spend time together. In “Turkey,” Bob has to come to terms with Tina’s approaching adulthood, just as she has to balance adulthood and childhood. In “Bob Sled,” he has to challenge his biases against his sister-in-law in order to respect the familial center of the holiday. In each of these episodes, the kids learn how to navigate and negotiate what traditions are and are not worth continuing, which is an essential line of questioning for children.
Perhaps most notably, though, the family unit is ever-expansive. In any given episode, the meal ends up encompassing more than the Belcher nuclear family. Whether it’s Gayle, Teddy, or Regular Sized Rudy, the Thanksgiving table always welcomes those who are important to the main characters. This is the most refreshing part of the show’s Thanksgiving episodes: instead of disrupting and then returning to the status quo, the status quo is always changing, pushing the characters to better understand themselves and each other, all while welcoming people into their family whenever possible. To me, this is the heart of Thanksgiving and the show itself: despite the struggles, people find ways to learn, grow, and be thankful. Further, the familial love exhibited by the Belchers can extend to anyone who desires it; bloodlines are less important than kindness.
Beyond the morals and character development, though, the most refreshing part about these episodes is the heart. It’s clear that someone (or everyone) on the writing staff adores Thanksgiving and all of the great things it can represent. Bob’s adoration for the holiday is hilariously over-the-top, but it’s also genuine and heartwarming. His enthusiasm is infectious, which allows the viewer to relate to the lessons he learns. And, of course, I applaud any Thanksgiving lovers who don’t condescendingly explain how awful Black Friday is. When combined with the class-consciousness of the show in general (again, Bob has to sacrifice his favorite holiday because he could really use the free rent), Bob’s Burgers manages to avoid all of the negative cliches of a holiday that brings out some obnoxious tendencies.
A lot of what I’ve said here is not unique to the show’s Thanksgiving specials; Bob’s Burgers manages to incorporate class consciousness, familial love, and genuine kindness into most of its episodes. But I think these specials are prime examples of the excellent writing and thematic work that the show does so well. So, if you want something fun to enjoy with your loved ones this Thanksgiving, spend some time with the Belchers.