Why the "failed Thanksgiving dinner" is actually the best sitcom trope

From "Friends" to "Full House," most sitcoms have an episode where The Big Meal is wrecked. I love those best

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 11, 2023 12:30PM (EST)

TV Dinner on TV (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
TV Dinner on TV (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Bob Belcher is a big fan of Thanksgiving. Fourteen seasons of “Bob’s Burgers” dotted with near-annual Turkey Day episodes have taught us this — which is why it’s such a shame that the big meal never quite goes as planned. 

There was the year that Gene (Eugene Merman) contracted the stomach flu and had to spend the food-focused holiday locked in the family bathroom alongside his trusty Casio SK-5 keyboard. Then there was the year that the family’s money-obsessed and scheming landlord, Calvin Fischoeder (Kevin Kline), involved the Belchers in “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal” as he had Linda (John Roberts) and the kids masquerade as his family in order to seduce an old girlfriend who gets off on breaking up marriages. 

But perhaps most memorable, especially for anyone who has ever babied, basted and otherwise fussed over a 14-pound bird, is the season four episode “Turkey in a Can.” Initially, it seems like a clear-cut case of holiday sabotage: Bob has spent three days massaging a special salt rub onto what is supposed to be his Thanksgiving turkey (a creation they dub “Father of the Brine”) only for it to end up face-down in the toilet. And then it happens again. 

That’s when Bob really starts to lose it. 

This episode has become, as Variety put it, “a stone cold ‘Bob’s Burgers’ classic,” but it’s not just a good example of a great show. It’s an excellent example of one of my personal favorite sitcom tropes, the “failed Thanksgiving dinner.” 

Think back on most popular network comedies from the last couple decades and, from “Friends” to “Gilmore Girls” to “Modern Family,” I guarantee you that tucked somewhere in their back-catalog is an episode centered on a Thanksgiving meal that goes poorly — or at least it looks that way. Sure, this is partially because it’s a genre of television that tends to trade in predictability and well-worn cultural stereotypes (take a look at “Kevin Can F**k Himself” for a pointed subversion of the form). However, the “failed Thanksgiving dinner” trope is bigger than that. 

More so than many of the plot points that tend to get recycled from situational comedy to situational comedy, it shines a really direct light on the gap between the messy chaos that can be real life and the image of a “perfect” holiday sold to us year after year, as well as the hidden domestic labor that makes up the ample space in between. Typically, it’s also done in such a way that the message is — well, digestible in 30 minutes or less. 

More so than many of the plot points that tend to get recycled from situational comedy to situational comedy, it shines a really direct light on the gap between messy chaos that can be real life and the image of a “perfect” holiday sold to us year after year.

I think back on the first season of “Full House” as viewers were still getting to know the Tanner family led by the recently-widowed Danny Tanner (Bob Saget). By the ninth episode, Thanksgiving has come to San Francisco and disaster is imminent. Danny’s mom was set to fly in from Tacoma and cook for the family and hopefully make it as “normal” a Thanksgiving as possible for Danny’s young daughters who are still reeling from the loss of their mom, Pam. However, in true sitcom fashion, she is unable to make her flight due to a snow storm. 

"It's no problem, we'll make that seven-course meal ourselves," Joey (Dave Coulier) replies to the news. "How, you ask? The miracle … of Thanksgiving." 

Seeing as the promise of intangible holiday magic as an assist is a risky way to plan one’s Thanksgiving dinner, it’s perhaps no surprise that things don’t quite go to plan when 10-year-old DJ (Candace Cameron Bure) decides to take over  the kitchen. At the end of the day, the family is left with a blackened turkey and a ruined pumpkin pie. “Okay, who wants white meat?” Danny asks as he carves into the singed bird. “Scratch that. We have dark meat or really dark meat.” 

The failure of this “Full House” Thanksgiving makes space for the characters to talk about what’s really at the heart of their holiday, as having a burned turkey as the centerpiece really does away with any pretense of perfection. This year, everyone misses Pam and the grief is overwhelming, but when they’re able to acknowledge that, the holiday becomes something that’s actually special and memorable. 

“When is it gonna stop hurting, man?” Pam’s brother, Jesse (John Stamos) confides in Danny. “I keep thinking the pain's gonna go away, but it doesn't. I see pictures, I think of her … I get this feeling…”

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Danny replies: “I know that feeling, Jesse. And I don't think it ever completely goes away. Sometimes it's easier, but on days like this, it's real hard. But you don't have to go through this alone.” 

Similarly, in “Turkey in a Can,” the absence of a perfect turkey and fixings allows Bob Belcher to grapple with what this particular holiday represents for him and his family. It’s revealed that Bob, who is exhausted due to the holiday prep and a new allergy medication, has actually been sleep-walking and while doing so, he unknowingly retrieves the turkey from the refrigerator and carries it around the house. In his dream-like state, he believes that the turkey is actually his eldest daughter, Tina, as a baby; he’s potty-training the turkey just like he potty-trained her. 

But now, Tina is 13 and obsessed with boys, butts and her growing collection of “erotic friend fiction.” She also wants to sit at the adults’ table this year, which has sent Bob into a spiral about how his little girl is growing up — which, in turn, he works through with the raw bird. Yet in the face of another ruined turkey, Tina offers this: “It's okay, Dad. Even if I sit at the adults' table, I'll still be your little girl.” 

And while there may be no miracle of Thanksgiving in quite the way Joey Gladstone believed, there is something a little magical — in that shiny, sitcom way — about realizing that a holiday with the people you love most can still be perfect. Perfect turkey or not.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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