The interesting thing about media depictions of Thanksgiving is analyzing how much they don't fit the ideal. Instead of unity, most movies and TV shows feature it as a holiday where there's underlying tension, conflict, and awkwardness among people that are supposed to like each other. Almost all of the stories are about dysfunctional families or groups that have screwed things up on Thanksgiving in one way or another. We, as the viewer, either get to feel that our own situation is not so bad and appreciate it that much more, or are shown how not living up to the ideal is okay and not the most important thing.
"The Americans have established a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers reached America. The English might very well establish another Thanksgiving Day; to celebrate the happy fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left England."
— G. K. Chesterton, Sidelights (1932)
With Thanksgiving, it's not only a holiday that's intrinsically connected to ideas about family, but media depictions also have social implications based on it being a holiday that touches on religion and the history of Native Americans. And the holiday, as it exists today, is a combination of history, myth, and setup for Black Friday shopping.
Also, it seems Americans stop watching porn on Thanksgiving. Although I guess there are two ways to interpret the drop in internet porn usage. With people off work, they have some free time to have sex with a partner instead of by themselves. Or alternatively, in the glass-half-empty interpretation, with family members being over and staying in the house, there might not be any opportunity for "alone" time.
"Of all the holidays on the calendar, Thanksgiving is the one most often chosen by the movies to show dysfunctional families in meltdown. The title card ‘Thanksgiving,’ indeed, is almost a guarantee that shameful secrets, towering rages, and massive depression will be presented, along with a vast amount of alcohol abuse."
Here are some choice selections of Thanksgiving weekend entertainment:
- Scent of a Woman has a great example of what Ebert is talking about in the quote above. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) is blind and bitter, and is making one last trip during the Thanksgiving holiday, checking off things on his "bucket list" before committing suicide. During the film, Frank shows up uninvited at his brother's home for Thanksgiving, and no one wants him there. This leads to all of the old resentments bubbling to the surface.
- There is probably no character more put upon and depressed than Peanuts' lovable loser Charlie Brown. But hell, you'd be depressed too if you were a balding child. In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, all of the Peanuts gang invite themselves to Charlie Brown's house for a Thanksgiving feast. However, he can only put together a meager meal for the group. But in the end, they all realize that it's not the food, but the fact that they get to spend time together that is what they're truly thankful for on Thanksgiving.
- The events of Hannah and Her Sisters are separated by three Thanksgiving dinner parties hosted by the eponymous Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her husband Elliot (Michael Caine). Complicating matters is the fact Elliot is involved in an affair with Hannah’s recovering alcoholic sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey). Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Weist), an out-of-work actress and recently recovered cocaine addict, can’t seem to settle on a career. Add into this mix Hannah’s ex-husband Mike (Woody Allen) is going through some neuroses, and Hannah’s parents (Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan) have their own issues with addiction and infidelity. Thanksgiving is a touchstone within the story by which we watch all of these relationships evolve and shift.
- They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're all together ooky … In Addams Family Values, leave it to Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) to throw a wrench into a particularly awful summer-camp Thanksgiving-themed production.
- In what may be the most remembered episode of the series, WKRP in Cincinnati had a story involving a Thanksgiving promotion that goes insanely awry. WKRP's owner Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) decides it would be a good promotion for the radio station to throw live turkeys out of a helicopter onto a shopping center. This leads to Les Nessman’s (Richard Sanders) vivid description of the horror.
- The week of Thanksgiving 1973 is the setting for The Ice Storm. Written by Rick Moody in novel form and adapted into a film by Ang Lee, similar in theme to other films of the late 1990’s like American Beauty, the story focuses on the dysfunctional upper-middle class lives of two families, which includes key parties, drugs, and loss of innocence. Infidelity occurs not out of wayward feelings or even lust, but just relief from boredom. And the distance between parent and child is a function of not understanding that being a parent is more than providing a big house and a whole bunch of … stuff.
- In a classic episode of Cheers, Diane (Shelley Long) tries her best, in her own neurotic busy-body way, to create the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. That goes out the window, and things devolve. But what's great about the episode is not only how the ensuing food fight shows how the characters are a family, but that you can tell from it that the actors genuinely like each other.
- HBO's The Sopranos was largely centered around the idea of family dysfunction—with multiple definitions of "family.” And the show had more than its fair share of family dinners that go to hell (e.g., "Your father never had the makings of a varsity athlete.") The eighth episode of the third season deals with the fallout from the confrontation between Tony (James Gandolfini) and Ralph (Joe Pantoliano) over what happened to Tracee—a stripper Ralph was sleeping with and brutally killed. This leads to Ralph being disinvited from Thanksgiving dinner. But Janice (Aida Turturro) shows up with her new narcoleptic, born-again boyfriend.
- If there's an overall theme to John Hughes' films, it's characters wanting life to behave in an ideal way, and coming to accept things aren't exactly what they wanted. Whether it's the characters in The Breakfast Club, in which a bunch of teen stereotypes learn they're not so different, or Sam (Molly Ringwald) in Sixteen Candles not having the sweet sixteen that she expected, the characters in these movies usually grow from their circumstances and realize that what they have is pretty good, even though it's not what they hoped to have. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Neil Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) end up spending three days together after a series of traveling mishaps, trying to get from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Neil is a humorless ad executive that can barely tolerate Del, a traveling shower-curtain-ring salesman who won't shut up.