“I would say something comforting, but, you know, my voice.” – Jacqueline Bouvier
“Bart vs. Thanksgiving” was originally broadcast twenty-five Thanksgivings ago (22 Nov 1990, to be exact). It’s the first episode written by George Meyer (just the 20th episode overall, and the 7th of Season 2), and it’s a great showcase of just how quickly the show began firing on all cylinders. The Thanksgiving episode has everything from blink-and-you’ll-miss-them background gags to gleefully cruel satire of sacred American institutions and self mocking meta-jokes.
Underlying everything is the show’s cardinal grace: a family that loves each other even while they don’t like each other. The story centers around Bart’s disdain for Lisa and her resentment of it, but it also covers Marge harshly scolding Bart; Patty, Selma, and Jacqueline trashing Marge; Homer’s indifference to his kids; and Grampa and Homer treating each other like furniture. In the end, they get “one more crack at togetherness” because they actually do love each other; but that only comes after the episode has spent considerable time rolling around in the rich comedy soil of family insults and contempt.
Around that is non-stop mockery of all the goofy traditions of modern American Thanksgiving. People watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, and on this sacredly secular day, Homer is gambling against his favorite team and all the idiots in the stands are using flash photography. Hooray For Everything comes out at halftime to celebrate the Western Hemisphere (“the dancin-est hemisphere of all!”) to the delight of Homer-esque dimwits nationwide. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets doubly insulted, both for using outdated cartoon characters that kids no longer care about, and for pandering to know nothing 10-year-olds by including a Bart Simpson balloon. (Which they actually did that year.)
“Son, this is a tradition. If you start building a balloon for every flash in the pan cartoon character, you’ll turn the parade into a farce!” – Homer Simpson
The episode the starts taking whacks at the often awkward and sometimes bitter tradition of having extended family over for dinner. Patty and Selma manage to insult Marge as soon as they walk in the door by having brought their own dinners. Jacqueline Bouvier shows up barely able to talk, but what words she does say express nothing but disappointment and shame at her three daughters. Homer goes to pick up Grampa at the retirement home, where forgotten old people get “turkey puree” and feel hopelessly lonely as the manager reads off an impersonal list of names whose families bothered to fax(!) in an empty holiday greeting. The choice Meyer and the rest of the writing staff present is both clear and bleak: spend the holidays with your family and you get to be miserable while you’re being insulted and put down, or spend it alone and forgotten and you get to be miserable and lonely.
“This place is depressing!” – Homer Simpson
“Hey, I live here!” – Abe “Grandpa” Simpson
After Bart and Lisa fight and Bart accidentally destroys Lisa’s prized centerpiece, the family (minus the two of them) finally sits down to dinner for a prayer from Homer:
“And Lord, we’re especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is . . . except for solar, which is just a pipe dream. Anyway, we’d like to thank you for the occasional moments of peace and love our family’s experienced. Well, not today, you saw what happened! Oh, Lord, be honest, are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?”
To which everyone at the table replies, “Amen”, before Selma calls it the, “Worst prayer yet”.
From there, the show continues its contemptuous survey of the hollowness of the holiday. At the corner of Croesus and Mammon, we see Burns throw away a feast while his security guards eat TV dinners and read Les Miserables. On the wrong side of the tracks, Kent Brockman shows up to the soup kitchen to win himself another local Emmy for what one of the bums perfectly derides as, “one of those be-thankful-for-what-you-got stories”. That joke still resonates because those stories remain a seasonal staple on local news, but what makes it even better is that this episode was actually broadcast on Thanksgiving! Real stories every bit as self serving and chock full of phony empathy as Brockman’s were being broadcast all over the country that very night.
The harsh limits of televised sympathy.
The story then wraps up with Bart actually being thankful for his family, and even apologizing to Lisa. Crucially, he doesn’t apologize because he’s being starved or because Marge told him he “ruined Thanksgiving”, but because deep down he feels bad for hurting his sister’s feelings. It’s a moment of actual family bonding, but it never degenerates into schmaltz or cliches.
With the relentless negativity of the extended family long gone, the episode ends with the nuclear Simpson family in their pajamas, happily slurping and belching over a table of leftovers. Thanksgiving may be a gluttonous charade, and your family may infuriate and hurt you, but spending it with them can still be special.