Holiday-themed television episodes are often the very best of a given series. There’s a certain comfort in reveling in some seasonal silliness, and in vicariously living through the ups and downs of any annual celebration with our favorite sitcom companions. I myself am a huge connoisseur of binging Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas episodes when the calendar deems it appropriate (as my girlfriend can attest), and as I’ve delved deep into the classics surrounding the autumnal observance, it became clear that one show rose above the rest: Friends. In honor of the coming feast this Thursday, let’s rank the decade of Thanksgiving-themed offerings from the Central Perk crew (a trailblazingly original idea if I’ve ever had one!).
While revisiting these episodes one by one, the variables that divided the good from the bad were quite apparent. The ‘bad’ episodes aren’t really bad, per se, but there’s a stark difference in the level of entertainment and rewatchability between certain seasons. The episodes driven by character– that were more episodic than serialized in format, and felt unburdened by any ongoing plotlines of their given season– are vastly superior to those episodes ensconced in whatever storyline the show was currently engaged in. When the show simply allowed the cast to work their magic, and show off their pitch perfect grasp on who these fictional characters were as people, it crackled with an energy that’s lacking in others.
Without further ado, I present the definitive list of Friends Thanksgiving episodes:
* Honorable Mention: The One with Ross’s Sandwich (S6) – Though it doesn’t belong on the Thanksgiving list proper, the plot involving Ross’s descent into madness– over losing a leftover turkey dinner sandwich, complete with a gravy-soaked piece of bread AKA “the moist maker”– is delightful. Ross screaming about, “MY SANDWICH,” will always elicit a laugh, and deserves a shout out even if it’s not technically a holiday offering.
10. The One with The List (S2) – A better episode than some to follow, this one pulls up the rear for being holiday-adjacent rather than revolving around it. With only a B-story about Monica’s brief flirtation with “mockolate”– the chocolate alternative hawked by Michael McKean, who recruits her in an effort to transform Thanksgiving into “the mockolate holiday”– involving the holiday at all, it loses points on this list as a result (like Rachel on Ross’ list for her “chubby ankles”). Airing at the peak of the will-they-won’t-they hullabaloo, it mostly thrusts that long simmering story forward, while ignoring the traditional gathering of the six friends.
9. The One With Rachel’s Other Sister (S9) – A real dud for such a successful show, this one suffers from the grating presence of the titular other sister, played by Christian Applegate. It’s not a knock on the guest star’s performance, which includes some funny moments, but more a flaw in her character and the writer’s presentation of her. She’s only there to stir the pot and cause trouble, which falls flat, bringing the entire episode down with it. Also, frankly, the focus on the group’s bickering over who would gain custody of Emma– if Ross and Rachel both perished– is a bore, and loses me every time. Joey forgetting to join his Days of Our Lives castmates on a Macy’s Parade float is fantastic, but a lone bright spot in an otherwise forgettable affair.
8. The One With Chandler in a Box (S4) – A surprisingly lackluster episode, given it aired during the show’s arguable creative pinnacle, this one illustrates the problem with focusing on a current serialized story over spotlighting the character’s quirks on turkey day. The tension between Joey and Chandler– resulting from the latter essentially stealing his roommate’s girlfriend– never feels genuine. Matthew Perry definitely earns some chuckles (like his future namesake) when Chandler is locked in the box, but any trepidation the viewers had about the friendship’s future is undercut by the obviousness of the outcome. It isn’t helped by a dreadful B-story about Monica needing an eyepatch– and flirting with the son of her ex, Tom Selleck– placing this one near the bottom.
7. The One Where Underdog Gets Away (S1) – Honestly, I’m not a big fan of season 1, particularly the contiual focus on Ross’s ex-wife, Carol, and her new lesbian partner, Susan. The plot dominates many of the early episodes, including this one, where Ross is desperate to connect with his unborn son. There’s a strong case to be made that Ross was the worst of the six main characters (as a character, not as performed by David Schimmer), and he is at his whiniest, most spoiled here. His petulant attitude with his sister, when he guilts her into making Thanksgiving dinner, “like Mom used to,” is appalling, and goes a long way towards making you side with Carol in the dissolution of their marriage. It’s fun to see Joey become a pariah after he becomes the poster child for STDs (“What Mario isn’t telling you…”) throughout NYC, but it’s only a small sliver of the whole pie, and not enough to pull it higher on the list.
6. The One with The Late Thanksgiving (S10) – Similar to season 1, the final season is far from my favorite, which makes this episode a surprising delight. It was clear the show had pretty much run out of steam by the end– which is understandable, after a decade of mining the same territory– but this one benefits from mostly avoiding whatever was happening as the show wound down. The entire sequence of scenes when Monica and Chandler lock the other four in the hallway is great, topped by Joey’s horrified realization that Emma is wearing his Cabbage Patch doll’s clothes (“that’s Alicia Mae Emory’s outfit!”). The attention spent on Monica and Chandler’s adoption quest is bleh, but worth it for Joey’s recollection of purchasing his doll– equating it to his friend’s journey– after “waiting and wondering,” then finally getting “that call from Toys ‘R Us: she’s in stock.”
5. The One Where Chandler Doesn’t like Dogs (S7) – This episode rides the cusp of being great, only held back by the continual presence of recurring character, Tag, or the human equivalent of raw cauliflower. Rachel’s assistant is the worst, a blank canvass of nothing, and the choice to have Rachel pursue a crush on him– and, eventually, to have the two date– is a huge miscalculation. The lack of chemistry between Jennifer Aniston and whoever played Tag (I won’t look up his name) is incredible to witness, and it bogs down a pair of otherwise fantastic plots. Ross’s inability to name all fifty states in six minutes is wonderful, since any opportunity to see the smug, entitled Dr. Gellar humiliated was one worth taking. In addition, everything involving Phoebe hiding a dog, Clunkers, in Monica and Chandler’s apartment succeeds, and helps elevate what could be a tiresome affair into something worth revisiting year after year.
4. The One Where Ross Got High (S6) – At this point, I’m largely nitpicking between which episode is better than the rest, but there has to be winners and losers in this Thanksgiving battle royale. This one really only falls behind the top three because of the short scenes involving Joey’s then-roommate, Elle Macpherson, because– like Tag after her– she lacks any charisma or chemistry of note with the rest of the cast. But that single fly in the ointment isn’t enough to keep this from being a classic, with Rachel’s disastrous attempt to make a traditional English trifle for dessert (featuring “a layer of beef, sauteed with peas and onions”) taking center stage. Ross is perfectly weaselly throughout, as he refuses to accept responsibility for any of his mistakes or inadequacies in front of his parents, and, again, any chance to see the PhD squirm in shame is more than welcome. Plus, Phoebe’s bizarre, brief infatuation with Monica and Ross’s dad is a perfect dollop of Cool Whip on top of this episode.
3. The One with All the Thanksgivings (S5) – If there was one thing that Friends did right, it was flashback episodes and sequences. The show never passed on an opportunity for the main cast to don goofy wigs and costumes (or, in Courtney Cox’s case, a fat suit), and it nearly always hit the mark when shooting for that comfort zone. The sight of Rachel pre-nose job, or Monica pre-weight loss, or Ross and Chandler in various 80’s fashions (with ridiculous hair, ranging from Flock of Seagulls to Miami Vice inspired) will always elicit a laugh, and the various vignettes– as the main six reminisce about past Thanksgivings, hence the episode title– expertly further fill in the character’s backstories. This episode is also packed with great lines, both as written and performed, whether it’s the discomfiting recollection of “more turkey, Mr. Chandler,” or when Judy Gellar laments the terrible realization that “there’s a toe in my kitchen.” This is a great episode of television, and a fun romp down memory lane in more ways than one.
2. The One with the Rumor (S8) – Generally, guest stars were a hindrance to a great episode of the show, but Brad Pitt’s appearance here works in spades. The stunt casting of Jennifer Aniston’s then husband could have doomed this one from the start, but Pitt’s performance is phenomenal enough to overcome any concerns. Not only does his character– Will, an old friend of Monica and Ross, who abhors Rachel for her perceived bullying during high school– blend seamlessly with the rest of the group, his presence helps deepen our understanding of who these characters were beyond the broad, surface-level traits. Learning that Ross and Will had an “I Hate Rachel Green Club” as teens isn’t surprising, particularly based on what we know, at this point in the series, about the younger Gellars and Rachel. That he, along with Ross, started the titular rumor about her from high school (that she was “the hermaphrodite cheerleader from Long Island,” as Chandler recalled) is a surprise, and the fallout to that revelation is hysterical. This was a huge episode when it first aired, given the presence of a movie star like Pitt, and in a bit of a shock, it delivered on the promise of his appearance, remaining hilarious nearly two decades later.
1. The One with the Football (S3) – The leader of the pack, this classic episode dominates the other Thanksgiving episodes because it was only concerned with the six friends and their time together on that day. There were no season long plotlines to attend to, which allowed the show to simply focus on the strong dynamics and interplay between the six talented actors. It also, like every all-time episode of the series, provides some further context for who these people were, and the reveal of the Gellar Cup– a troll doll nailed to a trophy, which was battled over during a formerly annual football game between the Gellar family as children– is glorious. The sibling rivalry between Ross and Monica was the driving force of this, and many other, episodes, and the echoes of past battles on the gridiron– like his resentful retort that she “knows I had swollen glands!” when she mentions a former excuse of his for losing, thinking he “might have had mono”– are present throughout their game. No one really cares about the touch football game that, weirdly, takes over the preparation and enjoyment of a Thanksgiving feast for the day…except for Ross and Monica. That war for familial domination was one that, luckily for us viewers, continued on eternally, and the two ending the episode with a mutual gridlock on a fumbled ball– neither willing to yield their ground, even as darkness and snow begins to fall– is a perfect footnote to the episode, and this list.