Pop Culture

There are Two 'Cheers' Thanksgiving Specials. Watch Them Both.

November 22, 2016

I’m staking a contrarian position here, but hear me out: I love Cheers. Yes, I know literally no one has ever had this opinion. The show's main pull is that it presents one insoluble fact—that 90% of life basically sucks—with clear eyes. In spite of my professed fandom, I forgot there are two Thanksgiving-Themed Cheers episodes. Two!

Reigning consensus is that the first Thanksgiving episode of Cheers is among television's finest, and, historically, I've subscribed to popular opinion. The ninth episode of the fifth season, “Thanksgiving Orphans,” tends to traffic lists of best Thanksgiving specials in the history of American television. It's got its own Wikipedia page. In it, Diane (Shelley Long), the neurotic who fancies herself an urbane and sophisticate New Englander yet is utterly incapable of engaging in human contact, invites the bar's sadsack clientele to her house for Thanksgiving. They've got nowhere else to go. It's a cast that includes her foil and lover Sam (Ted Danson), the daft Woody (Woody Harrelson), and the portly Norm (George Wendt). Diane plays host, donning a pilgrim maiden costume and all, and she soon realizes how shitty a bargain that is. The whole affair collapses before her eyes; she's not much of a host, and her guests are unruly. It culminates in a food fight.

The episode represents the show's finest elements in concert—sweet, funny, sad, all that good stuff. Few discuss Cheers' second Thanksgiving-themed episode, though, and it's nearly as good.

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The show was on its last legs when "Ill-Gotten Gaines," the eighth episode of the eleventh season, aired. Shelley Long infamously departed the show after the fifth season and Rebecca (Kristie Alley) entered the fray in her stead. Rebecca and Sam didn't have the same chemistry that he and Diane possessed, and so the show grew more farcical, relying more on its supporting troupe and less on its two principals to supply the dramatic weight. In this episode, Rebecca—a businesswoman by nature who tries her hardest to never let her frazzled, neurotic tendencies show—offers to host Thanksgiving at the bar, and the bar's regulars show up, all still lonely as hell. The writing remains sharp and pointed, and though these seasons don't have the thrust of Diane and Sam’s torrential relationship, this episode is illustrative of the show's larger philosophy: Life occasionally sort of sucks, and it's a little less painful in the company of people who understand that.

For the Cheers-uninitiated, don't worry: the episodes stand on their own. The post-Diane seasons basically double as white noise, the perfect thing to have blaring in the background as you cook. Cheers ended its rather remarkable eleven-year run a few episodes after that second Thanksgiving episode, and I’d say it bowed out with grace and dignity. Both Thanksgiving episodes are available on Hulu, Netflix, YouTube. Though the show is syndicated less fervently than it used to be—at least by my cable provider, who slots it into insomniac hours on the Hallmark channel—it's still on television. Why watch a billowing Snoopy float succumb to the elements on ABC? This Thanksgiving, watch these Cheers episodes while you're cooking instead. It'll make things easier.

There’s quite an economy of televised Thanksgiving specials. What's your favorite? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


cmhwsu November 26, 2021
This is a bizarre review. Cheers was far more complete with Kirstie Alley. She was truly one of the gang and matched the comedic chops of the other actors. Shelley was a stick in the mud who was never really that enjoyable. 'last legs'????? You do realize fans kept watching for another 20 years with the character Frasier. The show was great start to finish. They lost and added key characters throughout the run and only got better with each change. A truly amazing accomplishment.
Kelly November 23, 2016
My husband and I have been watching Cheers over the past year on Netflix and it's been so so wonderful to remember how good this show really is. It turns out Ted Danson is my new secret boyfriend (officially TV's finest comedic actor, he is simply effortless). Thanksgiving Pilgrims is magical. Season 6 is a re-boarding season as they try to figure out how to integrate Rebecca into the casts' seamless chemistry, but by Season 7 they have it figured out, it's one great and hilarious episode after another. I forgot about the other Thanksgiving episode, will watch that one tonight.