The Simpsons vs. Thanksgiving

Bart vs Thanksgiving17

“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 The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade gets doubly insulted, both for using outdated cartoon characters that kids no longer care about, and for pandering to know nothing 10-year-olds by including a Bart Simpson balloon.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.)

Bart vs Thanksgiving13

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?”

Bart vs Thanksgiving15

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.

Bart vs Thanksgiving16

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.

12 Responses to “The Simpsons vs. Thanksgiving”

  1. 1 RaikoLives
    26 November 2015 at 11:04 am

    Being Australian, Thanksgiving is, of course, only something we see television families do. On television. All of the traditions of the day are completely obscure to those of us who don’t celebrate the holiday. But, that doesn’t stop this episode from being great, funny and genuinely touching. It uses the tropes of Thanksgiving to add humour and drama, obviously, but it’s a solid story on its own, explaining the things it needs to and just being The Simpsons the rest of the time. While I may enjoy other episodes more than this one, it’s a credit to the writers and actors and all the staff who made this show, that it can still be watched and understood, even by the people who have only the tiniest awareness of the day.

    Also having only every experienced Thanksgiving through American comedies (and a couple of dramas) the whole thing seems ridiculous. Everyone complains about the day, and the traditions in place, but everyone also bows down and are mortified if the traditions aren’t met and fulfilled.

    The best thing about Thanksgiving, to me, is that is lessens the time in which you can start “preparing” for Christmas. We don’t have that here. Our Christmas decorations go up in October and the carols started a week ago. So next time you think the Christmas stuff is coming out early, just be thankful that you’ve got Thanksgiving (and Halloween) to break up the last few months of the year.

    • 2 A.M.
      27 November 2015 at 9:15 am

      Complaining about meaningless tradition until you’re old enough to strictly enforce it is sort of a thing we do in America.

  2. 3 Rob K.
    26 November 2015 at 11:20 am

    Excellent, Charlie.

  3. 26 November 2015 at 7:16 pm

    This is one of those simpsons episodes I appreciated better when I grew older. When I was young I thought it was boring and depressing and many of the jokes you mentioned I didn’t cactch them. S2 is definitely when the series started to improve

  4. 5 Noah P
    26 November 2015 at 7:40 pm

    “Worst prayer yet” always killed me. I can only imagine the other ones over the years.

  5. 8 Smithers
    26 November 2015 at 7:44 pm

    I remember when I first saw this episode, I was a young kid. I found a good portion of the episode quite sad, and I still do. I remember even getting teary-eyed during the scene where Bart destroys Lisa’s centerpiece and she runs off crying, thereby ruining Thanksgiving dinner for everyone assembled. I also shed a tear or two when Bart runs away from home (practically passing off as homeless), when he and Lisa confront each other and reconcile, and even when they eat subs for a new impromptu Thanksgiving dinner.

    Other instances that got me teary-eyed/made me feel sad included:
    • When Bart and “Michael Jackson” sing “Lisa It’s your Birthday” to Lisa (on her birthday, duh).
    • When Lisa calls Homer a baboon and runs off crying in “Lisa’s Substitute”, and Homer subsequently having a talk with her in her room. Also, in the same episode, when Lisa confronts Mr. Bergstrom and the famous note he gives her.
    • When Bart cries his eyes out after Mrs. Krabappel gives him an F, thereby making him have to repeat the 4th grade (he soon after gets a D- of course).
    • When Ned Flanders is forced out of his bomb shelter by Homer and sings “Que Sera Sera” to himself to pass the time.
    • When Abe Simpson bursts his kidneys because Homer didn’t want to stop so Grampa could relieve himself.

    I wonder if I’m the only one who feels/felt this way.

  6. 9 Smithers
    27 November 2015 at 10:28 am

    I almost forgot:

    • The end scene of the episode when Homer finally meets his mother (long thought to be dead), where Homer sits atop the hood of his car and just stares at the stars.
    • The ending of the episode where Grampa marries(?) Marge’s mother — the song “The Sound of Grampa” has some really sad lyrics.

  7. 11 Mike Russo
    27 November 2015 at 7:43 pm

    What I’ve always loved about this episode is how the first act is so casual. All it’s really doing is showing us what’s going on in the house as everyone gets ready for the holiday. It just feels so real, because the show is taking the time the allow the audience to immerse itself in the Thanksgiving preparations. Would Zombie Simpsons ever do a shot that just lingers on Maggie sitting on the couch watching TV as characters simply pass in and out of rooms and go about their business? Of course not. Hell, it probably wouldn’t have done that only a year later. But that’s the joy of those first two seasons.

  8. 12 Gina Brevin
    2 December 2015 at 6:29 pm

    That was a very beautful, very informative essay. That being said, I don’t like the episode, only for the fact that most of season 2’s episodes are pretty much the kind of sappy family sitcom stories this show was trying to avoid, though with some kind of shallow twist (the only season 2 episodes I like are Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish and the one where Homer forces Bart to donate blood to save Mr. Burns’ life. In fact, I like Mr. Burns and Smithers more in season 2 than in any other season, Zombie ones excluded). Season three to me is when the show started to get better.

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