Freedom from Want (1943) - Norman Rockwell
The interesting thing about most modern, pop-culture depictions of Thanksgiving is how much they do and don't fit the ideal. Instead of unity, most movies & TV shows that have Thanksgiving as a plot point feature it as a holiday where there's underlying tension, conflict, and awkwardness among people that are supposed to like each other. Almost all of the stories are about dysfunctional families or groups that have screwed things up on Thanksgiving in one way or another. We, as the viewer, either get to feel how our own situation is not so bad & appreciate it that much more, or we're shown how not living up to the ideal is okay & not the most important thing.
So what are some of the most interesting uses of Thanksgiving in media?
"The Americans have established a Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers reached America. The English might very well establish another Thanksgiving Day; to celebrate the happy fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left England."With Thanksgiving, it's not only a holiday that's intrinsically connected to ideas about family, but media depictions also have social implications based on it being a holiday that touches on religion and the history of Native Americans. And the holiday, as it exists today, is a combination of history, myth, and setup for Black Friday shopping.
— G. K. Chesterton, Sidelights (1932)
Also, it seems like Americans stop watching porn on Thanksgiving. Although, I guess there are two ways to interpret the drop in internet porn usage. With people off work, they have some free time to have sex with a partner instead of themselves. Or alternatively, in the glass half-empty interpretation, with family members being over & staying in the house there might not be any opportunity for "alone" time.
"Of all the holidays on the calendar, Thanksgiving is the one most often chosen by the movies to show dysfunctional families in meltdown. The title card "Thanksgiving," indeed, is almost a guarantee that shameful secrets, towering rages, and massive depression will be presented, along with a vast amount of alcohol abuse." -Roger Ebert
► Scent of a Woman (1992) - "Hooah"
Scent of a Woman has a great example of what Ebert is talking about in the blockquote above. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) is blind and bitter, and is making one last trip during the Thanksgiving holiday, checking off things from his "bucket list," before committing suicide. During the film, Frank shows up uninvited at his brother's home for Thanksgiving, and no one wants him there. This leads to all of the old resentments boiling to the surface.
► Addams Family Values (1993) - "We Cannot Break Bread With You"
Leave it to Wednesday Addams (Christina Ricci) to throw a wrench into a particularly awful summer camp, Thanksgiving-themed production.
► Cheers (1986) - "Sam Malone, Kiss Your Butt Goodbye!"
This episode had Diane (Shelley Long) trying her best, in her own neurotic busy-body way, to create the perfect Thanksgiving dinner. That goes out the window, and things devolve. But what's great about the episode is how the food fight, not only shows how the characters are a "family," but you can tell the actors genuinely like each other too from it.
► WKRP In Cincinnati (1978) - "Turkeys Away"
This is probably the most remembered episode of the series. It involves a Thanksgiving promotion that goes insanely awry. WKRP's owner Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) decides it would be a good promotion for the radio station to throw live turkeys out of a helicopter onto a shopping center. This leads to Les Nessman’s (Richard Sanders) vivid description of the horror.
► Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) - "Those Aren't Pillows"
If there's an overall theme to John Hughes' films, it's characters wanting life to behave in an ideal way, and coming to accept that things aren't exactly what they wanted. Whether it's the characters in The Breakfast Club, in which a bunch of teen stereotypes learn they're not so different, or Sam (Molly Ringwald) in Sixteen Candles not having the sweet sixteen that she expected, the characters in John Hughes' movies usually grow from their circumstances and realize that what they have is pretty good, even though it's not what they hoped to have.
In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Neil Page (Steve Martin) and Del Griffith (John Candy) end up spending three days together after a series of traveling mishaps trying to get from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Neil is a humor-less ad executive that can barely tolerate Del, a traveling shower-curtain ring salesman who won't shut up.
► The Sopranos (2001) - "He Is Risen"
HBO's The Sopranos is largely centered around the family dysfunction (with multiple definitions of "family"). And the show has more than its fair share of family dinners that go to hell. (e.g. "Your father never had the makings of a varsity athlete.") The eighth episode of the third season deals with the fallout from the confrontation between Tony (James Gandolfini) and Ralph (Joe Pantoliano) over what happened to Tracee.
This leads to Ralph being disinvited to Thanksgiving dinner. But Janice (Aida Turturro) shows up with her new narcoleptic, born-again boyfriend.
► A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) - "There's enough problems in the world already, Chuck, without these stupid misunderstandings"
There is probably no character more put upon and depressed than Peanuts' lovable loser Charlie Brown. But hell you'd be depressed too if you were a balding child. In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, all of the Peanuts gang invite themselves to Charlie Brown's house for a Thanksgiving feast. However, he can only put together a meager meal for the group. But in the end, they all realize that it's not the food, but the fact that they get to spend time together is what they're truly thankful for on Thanksgiving.