Thanksgiving episodes are a tradition dating back to television's earliest days. This week on Primetimer, we're traveling back in time to revisit episodes that made an impression on our contributors, both good and bad.
Long before Gossip Girl went off the rails and tried to tell us that Dan was Gossip Girl all along, Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage's teen drama served up a Thanksgiving episode stuffed with melodrama, family fights, and flashbacks to the previous year's celebrations. In the episode, the omniscient Gossip Girl voiced by Kristen Bell has taken the holiday off, but this doesn't mean the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite are any less interesting. Even without the signature gossip blasts lighting up every flip phone and Sidekick, the juicy bombshells keep dropping.
Despite having never celebrated Thanksgiving (I live in England), I adore Thanksgiving television episodes. What's not to love? It's like a warm-up for Christmas, with just as much food and guaranteed relationship fireworks. Friends was my entry point into this TV tradition, so my initial impressions of the holiday revolved around Monica (Courtney Cox) sticking a turkey on her head, Rachel making a 'traditional' English trifle, and sibling touch football rivalry. Obviously, that show was filmed on the Warner Brothers lot in Los Angeles, but to this day I associate New York City with this celebration because of Friends. So when the Gossip Girl Thanksgiving episode aired, actually filmed on location in NYC, it became my new favorite depiction of the day.
"Blair Waldorf Must Pie!" – a nod to John Tucker Must Die – cranks up the family shenanigans, and gives some further insight into Serena's (Blake Lively) messy past. It wouldn't be Thanksgiving on TV without awkward dinner revelations, and rest assured, Gossip Girl ticks this box with enough cringe to fuel future conversations until at least Christmas. This is thanks in no small part to revelations about Rufus (Mattew Settle) and Lily (Kelly Rutherford) having previously hooked up. The only character absent from the festivities is Chuck (Ed Westwick), which is no big loss.
Beneath the dinnertime farce, however, is Leighton Meester, who gives an emotionally charged performance as Blair that gets to the heart of why this series is more than just high fantasy. It's also a reminder that Meester should be a bigger star than she's become post-Gossip Girl.
Flashbacks to the previous year are woven throughout the episode, depicting a wobbly Serena, slurring and weaving through the holiday. If Meester nails the hollow sadness of her dad's absence, Blake Lively isn't so hot playing a convincing drunk, though there's camp value to watching her swing and miss. This is before Serena slept with Blair's boyfriend – the beautiful but dull Nate (Chace Crawford) – and yet the flirtatious groundwork between Serena and Nate is laid out, teasing the potential for what us viewers know is to come. In the present day, the reunited besties are allegedly over this particular betrayal, but the scab of this old wound is picked at when Serena mentions she saw Blair with Chuck (who happens to be Nate's BFF). Bombshells of this nature are a regular Gossip Girl occurrence, but the ripple effect it has on Thanksgiving is huge when Blair disinvites Serena from the Waldorfs' lavish feast.
Cut to Serena, her mom Lily (Kelly Rutherford), and brother Eric (Connor Paolo) wandering the streets of New York, pondering the closed stores and their lack of a Thanksgiving feast. Considering Lily orders room service for herself later on, it's odd they didn't just think to do that (they do live in a hotel after all). Instead, Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) invites his new girlfriend and her family over to his Brooklyn apartment. If the dating lives of the teens appear complicated, they've got nothing on their parents. There's a reason Rufus (Matthew Settle) keeps making quips about his son's taste in women. Dan's parents have only recently reconciled, and there is no love lost between Allison (Susan Misner) and Lily. Cue every horrified face when the various Humphrey and van der Woodsen kids realize their parents were romantically involved. Appetites disappear when the prospect of incest comes up. Everyone starts to fear they are related (they're not), and suddenly Serena's drunken state from the previous year is enviable to all. There is not enough wine in the world to deal with the conversation these kids are having about their parents' sex lives. It's hilarious and horrifying in equal measure.
Serena misses all of this, as she is called away to deal with a Blair emergency ("Wow, weird vibe," she remarks upon returning). Their blowup from the morning is forgotten when Blair ticks another teen show milestone with an eating disorder relapse (one that never really comes up again). Her dad has stayed in Paris, instead of joining his daughter for their favorite holiday. Again, this cuts to the core of Gossip Girl's strengths, as the bickering best friends have a deep love for each other when old resentments don't get in their way.
Everyone ends up at Dan's, because it wouldn't be a holiday episode otherwise. And in true TV tradition, barely any turkey or pumpkin pie is consumed, because the meal keeps getting interrupted by spilled secrets. Instead, fries end up as the food of choice. The closing montage emphasizes the importance of being with family on this holiday, no matter who they have or haven't slept with.
The first season set the tone, which meant every Thanksgiving that followed had a high bar to clear. As with the rest of Gossip Girl's run, the turkey day episodes couldn't quite match the lofty heights of the first year. Will the coming reboot rise to this challenge?
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.