Season 2: Episode 7. Original airdate: November 22, 1990.
Thanksgiving truly is a wonderful holiday. Even more than with other holidays, families take the reverence of Thanksgiving seriously, putting aside their quibbles and issues for the duration of a single meal. It’s a holiday that was basically conceived around the idea of family, in both a literal and figurative sense. That’s why it’s been such great fodder for classic sitcoms that base their premises on groups of people who form unlikely families, like Cheers. Ironically, the Simpson family is perhaps more unlikely to be able to settle their differences for a meal than even the ragtag group of barflies from that show, and their family is bound by blood.
This makes it sort of surprising that The Simpsons has only visited the Thanksgiving holiday a few times in its run, and in the other three instances, the holiday was more a looming event or historical device than an actual story generator. “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” is the show’s only true Turkey Day episode, and part of me believes the writers keep it a sacred cow of sorts because they simply can’t figure out how to top it. It’s a slow, leisurely episode that takes its time with the traditions the Simpsons have for the day, and is in no sort of hurry, so its character moments feel earned and genuine, even more so than usual.
The entire first act is a wonderfully-paced look at the preparations the Simpsons make for their Thanksgiving meal. Homer and Bart watch the parade together, which leads to a great meta commentary on the obsolescence of outdated Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, as well as the silliness behind Bart having his own balloon (which, not coincidentally, made its debut in the 1990 Macy’s Parade). Marge is feverishly working on dinner, while Lisa perfects her centerpiece, a cornucopia of feminist leaders including Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the champion of the Florida Everglades. Even the extended relatives get their due here— the visage of depression that is Grampa’s nursing home makes an appearance, and Patty and Selma show up along with their mother, whose first appearance here gives me the jibblies to even reminisce upon.
Before the meal can begin, the tranquility of the episode thus far must be upheaved. Of course, Bart is the one doing the upheaving, as he brings out the turkey for dinner. There’s no room on the table, so he attempts to displace Lisa’s centerpiece from the, well, center. The siblings engage in an argument, which eventually leads to Bart tossing Lisa’s work into the fireplace. Homer and Marge are furious, with Marge going as far as telling Bart that he’s ruined Thanksgiving. Bart seems unfazed by yet another incident getting him in trouble, so he snidely makes his requests for dinner to be sent to his room promptly. When he is denied his meal as punishment, he takes it upon himself to sneak out and find his own Thanksgiving.
For the first time in the series so far, I can relate to the Simpson parents in their frustration with Bart’s antics. While everything to this point has been silly or largely inconsequential, save for the Jebediah Springfield incident (which was caused largely by Homer’s bad advice, but I digress), his behavior at Thanksgiving was selfish and disrespectful to his sister. However, Bart acted entirely within the parameters of what we’ve come to expect from this character, and I still empathize with him because of that.
I think this is a fine place to discuss that characterization, and how Bart and Lisa are treated in the grand scheme of the series. Here, both of them act like children, for better or worse. Bart’s actions are all believable as those of a ten-year old mischief maker, as he doesn’t yet grasp the concepts of generosity or selflessness. Likewise, while Lisa is portrayed as an intellectual surrounded by inferior minds, she still has the emotional core of an eight-year old. She is justifiably upset by Bart’s destruction of her work, and she is understandably distraught when she thinks Bart is gone forever. Both characters act very much their age, while still retaining a heart that the audience can relate to.
Compare that to the Bart and Lisa of future seasons, who despite being the same age, act far less like children and more like typical animated characters. Their parents no longer function as authority characters in their lives, and all four main Simpsons are able to morph their personalities in order to serve a story. It’s a laziness that these early episodes just don’t have, because honesty and emotional integrity were still prioritized over plot devices. I shouldn’t complain, as I likely couldn’t come up with 20 years of stories, but it’s still disheartening to see such deep characterizations now compared to what they will become.
Bart’s Thanksgiving journey takes him across Springfield, including a detour at Burns Manor which gives us the gift of Burns’ first “release the hounds.” If that’s not a watershed moment in Simpsons history, I don’t know what is. Eventually, he discovers a plasma donation center and gets himself $12 by using a fake ID, but passes out in the street from the subsequent blood loss. He is discovered by two kindly hobos who take him to the rescue mission, where he is interviewed by Kent Brockman and is seen by his family. They notice him on the news in the midst of Lisa’s recitation of poetry, which has to add some salt to his sister’s still-raw wounds.
Being a Thanksgiving episode, Bart has to learn a lesson by the end. In this case, he is humbled by seeing the real problem of homelessness in Springfield, and offers the plasma money to his hobo friends. While they are kind enough to help an abandoned kid on the street, they are not above taking that child’s twelve dollars, another silly Simpsons play on stereotype. When Bart returns home, he finds himself on the roof and overhears Lisa’s sobbing over the loss of her brother. The two share a truly beautiful moment as Bart finally musters an apology. Homer listens in on the rooftop conversation and proclaims to Marge that they are good parents after all.
It’s a good thing The Simpsons hasn’t tried to take on Thanksgiving directly since this episode. Like Season 1’s Christmas special, it perfectly balances its heart and humor without ever getting too preachy. It’s the show at its classic best, and is a reminder of why these characters were so easy to fall in love with. They won’t remain this way for long, as the strains of producing a weekly series will distort their identities. But for now, I’m deeply thankful for this terrific version of the Simpson family.