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Thanksgiving Survival Guide: 9 Tips from TV Families Who Get It

Thanksgiving Survival Guide: 9 Tips from TV Families Who Get It

As exciting as it is celebrate Thanksgiving with our families, we also understand… we have to spend time with our families. For hours. Passive-aggressively fighting over food. With limited seating. Next to scary relatives we only see once or twice a year. So to get you through the day, we’ve enlisted the help of everyone’s favorite TV families for tips and tricks. Take heed, America. This is your day.

1) How to End That Fight About the Turkey

Two words: Butterball. Hotline. “This time of the year there should be a hotline you can call with questions about cooking turkey. A special 800 number where the phones are staffed by experts,” President Bartlet once bemoaned on “The West Wing,” only to be told by Charlie that there is such a thing. The President later gives the Butterball Hotline a call; hilarity ensues. 

The Butterball Hotline is still a real thing — you can even email them now with your questions — so as always, put your trust in Bartlet and follow his lead. But more importantly, keep this clip handy all Thanksgiving long, especially if there’s more than one cook in your kitchen. Nothing defuses a turkey dispute like giggling together over Bartlet getting pedantic about cooking temperatures. 

Though, if that doesn’t work, here’s your break-glass-in-case-of-disaster solution, from earlier in “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s career: The “Sports Night” episode “Thespis.” Even if no one can agree on the right way to cook a turkey, we can all agree that attempting to thaw it on a studio light grid is a bad plan.   

2) Who to Bring (And Who Not to Bring)

How I Met Your Mother” more than once proved the importance of a carefully selected guest list for your Thanksgiving dinner. When Robin brought her brand new “slightly older” boyfriend to what would be the first “Slapsgiving,” it lead to no shortage of awkwardness between her and now-ex-boyfriend Ted — awkwardness that nearly ruined Lily’s dinner. And a few years later, Thanksgiving got even more awkward when forever-jinxed college friend Blitz and Ted’s married crush Zoey ended up on the guest list. At the end of the day, those meals were full of unpleasant mishaps and drama. 

Going back to the last point, be careful about inviting someone who might try to cause a turkey rebellion — especially a deep fried turkey rebellion. On “Friday Night Lights,” Coach’s Wife’s reign as turkey chef was toppled by Buddy Garrity, of all people. Meanwhile on “Gilmore Girls,” the deep fried turkey rebellion came from within, as Sookie relinquished control over the turkey cooking and was betrayed by her husband. Learn from their mistakes. Make sure your guest list does not contain any usurpers.  

3) When to Show Up for Dinner

On time! This may seem obvious, but every year thousands of families are left waiting with hot food growing ever colder on their massive dining room table because someone couldn’t figure out their travel times. Others suffer the same fate because people try to show up at the exact minute the turkey is carved and no sooner, dreading extra time with the relatives they haven’t spoken to since last Thanksgiving. Don’t be that person.

While we understand the desire, it can lead to calamitous results, as seen in “The One With the Late Thanksgiving” in the tenth season of “Friends.” Rachel submits her daughter to a beauty pageant at the behest of Phoebe, while Joey and Ross go to a hockey game rather than show up on time for Monica and Chandler’s Thanksgiving dinner. By the time everyone arrives, Chandler and Monica are so mad their friends are late, they lock the security chain on their door, barring anyone from entry. This results in a hilarious sight gag (once again providing ample evidence for Matt LeBlanc’s MVP status in the later seasons), but also ends in the meal being ruined. 

Is that what you want? No? Then be on time.

4) How (Not) To Handle the Food Prep

Choosing who brings what to the Thanksgiving table is hard enough, but actually preparing the food can be a challenge unto itself. Countless TV shows have shown how hard it is to cook (including “Friends,” the dominant Thanksgiving representative, when Rachel tries to make a trifle). Yet there’s always someone who doesn’t know how to cook, but decides this is the year they’ll learn, to the misfortune of everyone eating the experiment (like Rachel when she tries to make a trifle). 

So make sure you’ve got ample eating options by either cooking some of your favorites yourself or entrusting the responsibility to someone, you know, responsible. For example, do not let your permanently adolescent bartender friend who’s going through a permanent midlife crisis offer to handle all the food prep, as Nick (Jake Johnson) did in the third season of “New Girl.” Unlike past years, which were thrown off by uninvited guests, “Thanksgiving III” found the gang out in the wilderness, foraging for their dinner after Nick’s manhood was challenged. Everyone nearly starved and Jess was sent to the hospital, capping a disastrous holiday for all involved. Next time, let Schmidt do the cooking, or your similarly anal retentive friend

5) How to Spend Time With Your Loved Ones

One crucial aspect of Thanksgiving that often goes overlooked is what, exactly, you’ll do. Sure, there’s plenty of time spent eating and chatting, but the celebration usually lasts much longer than anyone can eat. So what do you do with the extra time? Certainly you can’t hold original conversations with distant cousins for that long. So play some games. Get a group activity going, even if it’s not the entire group.

While undoubtedly an extreme example, “How I Met Your Mother” illustrated this well over the course of its many “Slapsgivings.” It’s best example of a focused group effort came in Season 5 with “Slapsgiving II: Revenge of the Slap.” After Marshall forgets the perfect Thanksgiving turkey in a cab, Ted and Robin pick up the bird from the Port Authority and are thus gifted Marshall’s fourth slap (see “Slap Bet” for origin details). A fight breaks out over which one of them gets to slap Barney, before the rest of the gang joins in on the torturous fun by being gifted and gifting the right to the slap as well. It takes up the whole evening, making for delightful time-wasting on a day in desperate need of exactly that—you don’t have to resort to physical violence, but sometimes you just need it. Family, am I right?

6) But Don’t Skimp on Traditions! 

If the above option doesn’t work, there are plenty of daily traditions to help you get through the day. Football is one of the main ones, and now more than ever those sportsing matches can be relied upon to kill some time (while there used to be just one, now there are three three-hour games). Same goes for the Thanksgiving Day parade in the morning. I know, I know. Parades are boring and terrible, but sometimes you need something awful to bond you with otherwise awkward conversationalists. If the parade becomes intolerable and the football game turns into a blow-out, don’t be afraid to look for movie marathons, as well. TV is as much a part of Thanksgiving as the turkey. Don’t be afraid to use it.

The “Cheers” gang exploited each one of these programs when they founded the first “friendsgiving” in Season 5, during the episode titled “Thanksgiving Orphans.” Each member of the Boston bar had plans fall through—much like the first “Friends” friendsgiving—resulting in the group spending it together. Their collective shunning lead to tempers flaring and a memorably brief food fight, but before all hell broke loose the group got through the day by watching TV. Here’s hoping you can do the same.

7) The Thrills and Perils of Double-or-Quadruple Booking

Thanksgiving is just one day, and if your situation is more complicated than the standard-issue American nuclear family unit, then you might find yourself squeezing multiple events (and meals) into the day. While you want to be careful about over-committing, it’s possible to enjoy more than one activity — football practice and deep-fried turkey on “Friday Night Lights,” or in the case of “Gilmore Girls,” four incredibly different feasts. 
The advantage of multiple Thanksgiving plans is that it beats the alternative: One incredibly awkward dinner that lasts all day. Just witness the awkwardness that is a “Mad Men” Thanksgiving at the Francis house, where Betty and the Draper children find themselves under intense judgement — and found wanting. 

8) Don’t Forget: It’s Thanksgiving “Weekend,” Not “Day”

For many, Thanksgiving involves travel. Whether it’s a few hours or a few connecting flights, going home for the holidays isn’t a solitary event. The time it takes you to get home usually determines how long you’ll stay. For instance, if you live in the same town as your family—like in “Modern Family”—it’s likely you’ll swing by in the early afternoon and stay through dinner before skedaddling home for your weekend. But if you’re traveling more than a few hours to celebrate, odds are you’ll be spending the weekend with family. 

That’s okay. Spending extra time at home can actually play to your advantage. Being in town longer means you’ll have more opportunities to spend with your family, but also more opportunities to get away. So plan ahead. Make sure an event you can’t miss is coming up Friday or Saturday, be it a movie premiere (plenty of good movies are released on most Thanksgivings), Black Friday deals, or even a football game against a rival you’re expected to lose to but instead spend extra time prepping to crush.

That’s what Eric Taylor did on Thanksgiving Day (Season 4, “Thanksgiving”) when he could have been at home helping Tami cook dinner (a dinner of bittersweet emotions thanks to Billy Riggins’ poignant speech). He extended his practice and made sure each player on his East Dillon squad was ready to tame those Panthers come Friday. The work paid off, too, as Landry’s favorite Thanksgiving became the one that took place on a Friday. 

9) How to Make Sure It’s the Best Thanksgiving Ever

Don’t go. Okay, you have to go, but if you really want to ensure Thanksgiving is as fun as it’s intended to be, spend it with the people you’re actually thankful are in your life. If that means family, great. If not, grab some friends and put together a “friendsgiving” of your own. Do it before the holiday or on it, whichever you can get away with, stress-free. Whether you’re shunned—like the cast of “Cheers” and the first Thanksgiving episode of “Friends”—or heartily choosing to spend time with your core group—like the later seasons of “Friends”—take control of your holiday by being around the people you actually want to make time for, and not the people you feel obligated to pander.

TV has proven it works. Just look to “Community,” “Modern Family,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Will & Grace,” and so many more if you need proof—or, if you need to hide in the TV room while spending a Thanksgiving with the wrong people. 

READ MORE: Thanksgiving Weekend TV Guide: 7 Marathons to Watch (and One Movie)

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