Outside-the-Box Thanksgiving TV Specials and Where to Stream Them

The holidays are always a time for celebration. Whether it's eating turkey, sipping cider, or going Black Friday shopping, there's so much to do and enjoy during Thanksgiving—not to mention the endless Thanksgiving-themed specials playing on TV.

While those specials are certainly worth your time, it can be hard knowing what's worth watching and what's worth avoiding. Of course, there are also those Thanksgiving specials that are on the fringes of TV—episodes that barely have anything to do with Thanksgiving, or present it in a less than wholesome way.

Recently, we released a list detailing the must-watch Thanksgiving specials from some of the best sitcoms out there, all of which tended to portray the holiday in a tender, heartwarming way. With this list, we decided to go with a less traditional approach, detailing some of the some out-there Thanksgiving specials ever produced. These episodes feature portrayals of Thanksgiving that either act as complete opposites of everything you'd expect in a holiday special, or seem like they would make for the perfect sort of Thanksgiving special in everything but the name alone.

Here are some of the most off-kilter, outside-the-box TV episodes we encourage you to watch this Thanksgiving, as well as where they are currently streaming.

1. The Simpsons: “Thanksgiving of Horror” (Season 31, Episode 8)

Thanksgiving TV Specials

The Simpsons might have the market cornered for Halloween—regularly released their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes every October—but in 2019, the showrunners decided to extend the holiday horror a month further, resulting in Season 31's “Thanksgiving of Horror.”

Taking on a similar format to their “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, “Thanksgiving of Horror” is divided into three separate segments (not counting the introduction) that present scary tales of Thanksgiving horror, as well as directly parodying numerous movies and TV shows like Apocalypto, Alien, and Black Mirror. 

All three segments have their individual strengths and weaknesses, but it's likely the opening segment, “A-Gobble-Ypto” that’s the episode's best, featuring half of Springfield's residents as turkeys and the other half as 1600s' pilgrims preparing for their Thanksgiving feast.

The Simpsons are no stranger to holiday-themed episodes—the series' pilot itself being a Christmas special—and in the course of their 33 season run, they've produced quite a number of memorable Thanksgiving specials that were equally funny as they were heartfelt.

However, there's no denying that in three decades, there are only so many ways to tell a traditional Thanksgiving story, and thankfully, the showrunners' ingenious idea to frame a “Treehouse of Horror” episode to Thanksgiving offered a brilliant concept take that mixed plenty of screams with some genuine laughs. Hopefully, we won't have to wait much longer to see a “Christmas of Horror” in the future, but at least we have this entertaining episode to hold us over until then.

Streaming on Disney+

Image Credit: FOX.  

2. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “The Gang Squashes Their Beef” (Season 9, Episode 10)

Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia

If most Thanksgiving specials out there are all about setting aside your problems and coming together to celebrate the holiday as a group, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Thanksgiving episode is the complete antithesis of that wholesome TV trope.

When they attempt to celebrate Thanksgiving their own way (watching a cheesy movie and eating Wawa hoagies), the gang faces numerous problems as they encounter people from their past they have wronged in some way.

Looking to put these tumultuous relationships to rest, the gang invites some of their most infamous enemies—including the McPoyles, Cricket, and Gail the Snail—over for a Thanksgiving dinner to “squash the beef,” with the party soon devolving into a violent food fight that quickly gets out of hand. Full of dark humor, disgusting jokes, and generally unlikable characters, it remains the exact opposite of everything a decent Thanksgiving should be.

For a refreshing change of pace, we highly recommend this episode, which includes some of It's Always Sunny‘s most memorable side characters, and some fantastic scenes that feature Dennis and Mac trying to make peace with the McPoyles, and Frank and his landlord Hwang hatefully staring at one another in tight closeups as they both eat crackers. It's one of those television episodes that will have you saying, “What exactly did I just watch?”—which, given some of the past episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, sounds about right.

Streaming on Hulu

Image Credit: FX.

3. Rick and Morty: “Rick & Morty's Thanksploitation Spectacular” (Season 5, Episode 6)

Rick Mortys Thanksploitation Spectacular

Given how relatively small the number of episodes Rick and Morty has released is (a common point of vocal complaint among fans of the hit Adult Swim series), the series hasn't really tackled that many holidays. When Rick and Morty do make holiday-centric episodes, though, they tend to go all-in, framing the animated duo's insane sci-fi adventures around the holiday in question in a wholly entertaining way.

In their first Thanksgiving-themed episode's cold open, Rick and Morty accidentally destroy the United States Constitution and unwittingly set a giant hostile robot loose. To try and get out of trouble, Rick disguises himself and Morty as turkeys during Thanksgiving to receive a presidential pardon, unknowingly resulting in a turkey-President hybrid being released, threatening mankind's existence.

Rick and Morty‘s fifth season remains a point of debate among fans and critics (don't even get us started on the polarizing “Rickdependence Spray”), but lighthearted, wacky episodes like this that served as the foundation of Rick and Morty saw a return to form of sorts for the show, focusing on their zany adventures that saw them battle giant turkeys or a spider-legged FDR (both of which are featured in this episode).

Sure, it may not have the same level of dramatism, deep revelations about Rick's past, or philosophical comments on one's place in the universe—things that fans closely associate and look forward to in the show. But it does have some great action scenes and plenty of hilarious banter between Rick, Morty, and the President, and in the end, what else could you possibly expect from a Rick and Morty Thanksgiving special?

Streaming on HBO Max

Image Credit: Adult Swim. 

4. South Park: “Black Friday” (Season 17, Episode 7 to 9)

South Park scaled

Technically, South Park has released a Thanksgiving episode in the past—season four's “Helen Keller! The Musical”—but for our money, it's their more recent, far superior “Black Friday” trilogy that takes the cake for the series' best holiday special. While it may not be focused altogether on Thanksgiving, its satirization of Black Friday makes it a must-watch this November.

Weeks prior to the release of the PS4 and Xbox One, South Park's boys break off into two separate groups based on their game console preference, leading up to a mass showdown at the mall on Black Friday. Meanwhile, fan-favorite character Randy takes on a job as a mall security guard, secretly plotting to take advantage of the Black Friday deals himself.

Released during the peak popularity of HBO's groundbreaking Game of Thrones, South Park‘s “Black Friday” trilogy directly parodies elements of the series—alliances, betrayals, and political maneuvering—set around Black Friday. Its numerous hilarious send-offs to Game of Thrones—such as having the mall security guards appear as the Night's Watch, with the approaching Black Friday shoppers subbing in for the White Walkers—makes this essential viewing for any fans of the HBO series out there.

In a sharp critique of everything from commercialism to the cutthroat attitudes people take over shopping deals (the episode incorporates real-world footage showing people getting trampled and knocked over on Black Friday), South Park's “Black Friday” trilogy remains an endlessly entertaining episode and effective piece of social satire, perfect for fans Game of Thrones and non-fans alike.

Streaming on HBO Max

Image Credit: ViacomCBS.

5. Superstore: “Black Friday” (Season 2, Episode 9)

Superstore

Like the above-mentioned South Park episode, Superestore’s “Black Friday” is centered more around Black Friday than it is Thanksgiving, making it another great special to watch if you're one of those souls brave enough to face the Black Friday crowds.

Taking place in the early morning just after Thanksgiving, the Cloud 9 team readies themselves for the oncoming storm of Black Friday shoppers. At the last minute, however, most of the staff ends up suffering from food poisoning from a shared Thanksgiving potluck dinner they had, resulting in the store being desperately understaffed during the busiest day of the year (or, as Jonah puts it, “The Superbowl of Retail”).

If you've ever been shopping at a place like a mall or retail stores like Best Buy, Target, or Walmart after your Thanksgiving dinner, you know the utter anarchy that is Black Friday. While a few series have managed to frame that chaos from the shopper's point of view (The Simpsons‘ “Tis the 30th Season” or Scream Queens' “Black Friday,” for example), Superstore may offer the best glimpse of the retail horror from the actual employees' perspective.

It's an episode that shows no matter how hard you prep for it, there's nothing that will get you completely ready for the unending crowds of shoppers ready to literally beat each other over great savings if you're one of those poor people who find yourself working a Black Friday shift.

Streaming on Hulu and Peacock (premium subscription required for both)

Image Credit: NBC Universal. 

6. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Pangs” (Season 4, Episode 8)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is almost certainly one of the most iconic, well-loved shows of the 1990s'. Throughout its seven-season run, audiences fell in love with the clever concept of a young teenager destined to slay vampires, demons, and other supernatural forces, propelling the series to massive mainstream success and endearing popularity to this day. Before Supernatural, before The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, before Riverdale, there was Buffy and her numerous memorable adventures, killing off vampires and saving the world time and time again.

Buffy may not have had very many holiday episodes, but when it did, it managed to incorporate the holiday into its signature horror format, producing unique specials that retained the series' signature blend of horror and comedy.

In the show's first and only Thanksgiving episode, Buffy prepares a Thanksgiving meal for herself and her friends while away at college. The celebration is soon interrupted by the return of a vengeful Native American spirit setting out to kill those who wronged his people.

There's an obvious elephant in the room when discussing Thanksgiving—that being the huge genocidal undertones of the holiday, with European colonizers driving off the Natives from their land and claiming it as their own. It's a subject that is largely ignored when thinking about the holiday, but it's incredibly important to remember the people that once held this land before centuries of warfare, disease, and forced migration drove them nearly to extinction.

Buffy‘s “Pangs” thankfully touches upon the subject of Native Americans and their role in Thanksgiving in an all too real, all too horrifying episode that explores our country's worst atrocities rather than glossing over them, as is, unfortunately, the case with the numerous other holiday specials you'll find on TV.

Streaming on Hulu and Prime Video

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox. 

7. Tales from the Crypt: “What's Cookin'” (Season 4, Episode 6)

Tales from the Crypt

The television adaptation of the now-classic '50s comic, Tales from the Crypt, remains one of the most important, underrated series you'll ever see.

Taking the classic comic book conventions of campy horror that had made the original EC comics such a staple of modern horror and combining it with uncensored violence and language (thanks to its syndication on HBO), Tales from the Crypt was one of the boldest, unique, longest-running horror anthologies since The Twilight Zone. 

What made it all the more entertaining was its inclusion of some of the most famous and well-known actors of its day, including guest appearances by everyone from Joe Pesci and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Tom Hanks and Whoopi Goldberg.

In the series' episode, “What's Cookin'”, struggling restaurant owners Fred (Christopher Reeves) and his wife Elma (Bess Armstrong) nearly close up shop when they are unable to make their rent payments. Just as they are about to foreclose, their helpful but enigmatic employee (Judd Nelson) starts providing them with delicious steaks that save the restaurant, resulting in a huge boom in customers. All of that changes, though, when Fred finds out where his employee is really getting his meat supply from.

Though not a Thanksgiving special, the fact that “What's Cookin'” revolves so heavily around food, cooking, and the restaurant world makes it the closest thing Tales from the Crypt ever released to a Thanksgiving-themed episode. It's bold, disgusting, and will probably ruin your appetite, but it's all worth it to see Reeves, Nelson, and a cameo appearance from Meat Loaf as the loathsome landlord who pesters Fred to interact on-screen (three actors you never would've imagined would work so well together).

It's pure cartoonish fun, taken straight from the pages of EC's Haunt of Fear (a sister title to Tales from the Crypt), and showcases all the reasons HBO's Tales from the Crypt remains one of the more superior horror anthologies of its time.

Not currently streaming, but can be rented online

Image Credit: Warner Bros. 

8. Family Guy: “And Then There Were Fewer” (Season 9, Episode 1)

Family Guy

For a fun change of pace from the run-of-the-mill Thanksgiving specials, Family Guy‘s Season 9 debut episode, “And Then There Were Fewer,” offers a refreshing, comedic portrayal of a dinner party gone drastically wrong.

After nearly every major resident of Quahog is mysteriously invited to a dinner in their honor at a secluded mansion, they are shocked to find a reformed James Woods seeking to make amends for his past wrongdoings. When Woods ends up murdered and a fierce storm results in everyone being unable to leave, all the guests try to find the person responsible, all the while being killed off one by one.

Yes, “And Then There Were Fewer” technically isn't a Thanksgiving special—however, given the theme of everyone gathering to enjoy a nice dinner (you know—until a murder interrupts it) makes it seem like the perfect thing to watch around the holiday, offering a fresh, more comedic take on a classic Clue-esque mansion murder mystery.

A whodunnit told in the manner of an Agatha Christie novel, it's as funny as it is tense, producing some genuinely creepy moments that seemed incredibly out of place and serious for Family Guy, making it one of the best, most unique two-part episodes the series has ever produced.

Streaming on Hulu

Image Credit: FOX. 

9. The Office: “Dinner Party” (Season 4, Episode 13)

The Office 1

Similar to Family Guy‘s “And Then There Were Fewer,” The Office‘s “Dinner Party”—one of the absolute best episodes of the entire show—isn't really a Thanksgiving episode, but given its subject matter, it's hard to ignore the similarities it has to a Thanksgiving special.

In the episode, Michael finally manages to get Jim and Pam to attend a dinner party at his condo thrown by himself and Jan. Joining them are the always-weird pairing of Andy and Angela, as well as party-crasher Dwight with his elderly former nanny as a date, resulting in a long night of awkward tensions between Michael and Jan that makes everyone feel extremely uncomfortable.

Fans of The Office frequently cite the notorious “Scott's Tots” as the most cringeworthy and hard-to-watch Office episode, but a serious argument could be made that any minute of “Dinner Party” could also easily be named as definitively the most uncomfortable Office scene there is. Throughout the episode, the audience and dinner guests are treated to the numerous passive-aggressive and full-out arguments between Jan and Michael, one of the most toxic relationships in modern television.

It may not be a Thanksgiving-themed episode, but “Dinner Party” can illustrate the awkward dinners numerous people face during the holidays. (Let's be honest, who hasn't had at least a minute or two of uncomfortable silence after your in-laws argue about something in front of everyone at the dinner table?) Yet its firm place as one of the earliest, most memorable Office episodes makes it one of the most noteworthy episodes of the series you simply have to watch.

Streaming on Peacock

Image Credit: NBC Universal. 

10. Mad Men: “The Wheel” (Season 1, Episode 13)

Mad Men

Mad Men is just as much a character study of its complex hero, Don Draper, as it is a shifting portrait of the advertising world throughout the 1960s'. Few TV shows can make the claim for having as nuanced a main character as Draper, the enigmatic man literally leading two lives, a skilled adman who frequently sacrifices his personal life for the benefit of his professional career.

In the season one finale to Mad Men, the main plot of “The Wheel” revolves around Don telling his wife Betty that he has no interest in attending her family's Thanksgiving dinner. A fierce argument ensues, and in the episode's conclusion—when Don realizes how much he loves his family and how selfish he’s being—he returns home to find Betty has taken the kids and gone to her family's anyway, leaving Don to celebrate the holiday alone.

It's episodes like “The Wheel” that stand out as some of the earliest episodes that put Mad Men on the map. Its shifting focus on Don's storyline, as well as Peggy's sudden rise at the company being interrupted by unexpected, surprising news, all made for fantastic storytelling focusing on complex, realistic characters.

It can't be understated how important and fully realized a character Don himself is, a man with two lives that meet with cataclysmic personal results in this episode. It's episodes like this one that also allowed audiences to more fully get inside Don's head, analyzing his thoughts and understanding him a bit more as a person, and his inability to recognize what's truly important in his life.

With “The Wheel,” the audience finally sees that this decision is not without its cost, and that despite all his monetary success in business, Don remains an empty, unhappy man without anyone supporting him (something that would become a paramount theme throughout the series).

Streaming on Prime Video

Image Credit: Lionsgate. 

Final Thoughts

christmas dinner table scaled

There are so many specials on TV to enjoy for the holiday—some perfect for the family and providing lighthearted entertainment for everyone to enjoy, and others (such as those detailed on this list) that are the exact opposite.

These episodes portray the holiday not as some joyful celebration of family and friends, but explore the darker or more realistic aspects of the holiday (awkward reunions, tense conversations, ruthless commercial shopping) or lampoon Thanksgiving for more comedic effect.

If you happen to grow tired of the usual classics like A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving or Cheers' “Thanksgiving Orphans” this holiday season, we suggest watching any of these memorable, outside-the-box Thanksgiving specials as an alternative to the family-friendly specials currently streaming.

Additionally, we also recommend The Sopranos' “He Is Risen,” The West Wing‘s “The Indians in the Lobby,” and Orange is the New Black‘s Thanksgiving episode.

Image Credit: Freepik. 

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Feature Image Credit: NBC Universal.  

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Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).