This article originally ran in 2018.
While special holiday episodes are a sitcom institution, only a handful of shows can lay claim to specific celebrations. With its more than two dozen “Treehouse of Horror” anthologies, The Simpsons is the undisputed champion of Halloween episodes (with Roseanne close behind), and Bob’s Burgers has a nice collection of Valentine’s Day installments.
But as far as Thanksgiving episodes go, Friends has the most and the best. Maybe they’re the only show to try it because no other show wants to earn itself an unfavorable comparison to the Central Perk Six — after all, almost every single one of the nine Thanksgiving episodes produced over the show’s ten-season run, 1994–2004 (what’s your problem, 1995?!), is an excellent Thanksgiving episode.
This week, you’re going to need something to watch with your family on Thanksgiving that isn’t football, a parade, or a dog show, so here are the Thanksgiving episodes of Friends, ranked from least-best to most-best.
9. “The One With Rachel’s Other Sister” (Season 9, 2002)
Any show is going to run out of steam and/or ideas by its ninth season. By 2002, Friends had explored most every possible Thanksgiving angle, except for the one that defines so many real-life Thanksgivings: familial fighting. In this, the second-to-last time Friends would celebrate November’s most gluttonous holiday, Rachel’s obnoxious sister Amy (Christina Applegate) invites herself to Thanksgiving, and the conversation turns to who would get custody of baby Emma if Rachel and Ross died. Of course, they’ve already picked the most logical and obvious godparents: Chandler and Monica. Despite being just a recurring character and a terrible person, Amy isn’t happy with that decision, but then Chandler also gets mad because he learns that if Monica died after Ross and Rachel, then Jack and Judy Geller get Emma instead of him alone. It’s … a lot. I mean, does anybody really want to see the Friends friends fight and contemplate death?
8. “The One With the Late Thanksgiving” (Season 10, 2003)
After that morbid misstep in season nine, Friends writers turned it around a little for what they knew would be their last Thanksgiving episode, and, sadly, the last Thanksgiving all the friends would spend together. It lays the groundwork for the splintering of the group into different directions and locations by series end. That makes it just as depressing as “The One With Rachel’s Other Sister,” but it still ranks higher because of some genuine laughs and a major, poignant plot development. See, Monica and Chandler don’t even want to host Thanksgiving in their apartment, the main set of the show, but Phoebe convinces them that they have to. Thanksgiving-food-hating Chandler (he’s resented the holiday since childhood, when he learned of his parents’ divorce on that day) makes a big breakthrough by preparing cranberry sauce. B-plots involve Rachel and Phoebe entering Emma in a baby beauty pageant and Ross and Joey hitting a hockey game … which makes them all late for dinner, which in turn makes Monica and Chandler angry enough to lock everybody out of the apartment (although Joey gets his head stuck in the door, because he’s Joey). Of course, none of that matters when Chandler and Monica receive word — on Thanksgiving — that they’ve been selected to be adoptive parents.
7. “The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs” (Season 7, 2000)
Let’s be honest — Chandler isn’t all that likable. Not only does he make his displeasure with Thanksgiving so known that it sours the holiday for other people, but, as this episode informs us, the erstwhile Miss Chanandler Bong hates dogs. That’s unforgivable. Still, this episode feels like a real Thanksgiving in that there’s just so much amusing, low-stakes stuff going on with so many different people. Phoebe’s sneaking a dog around (and Chandler bristles), smarty-pants Ross won’t allow himself to have a plate of Thanksgiving food until he can name all 50 states from memory, and Rachel has some relationship drama with dopey Tag.
6. “The One With the Football” (Season 3, 1996)
Most of these Thanksgiving installments of Friends are what TV people call “bottle episodes” — everything takes place in a short period of time, and in one location, like, say, a huge apartment with a mirror on the peephole. In just its second Thanksgiving episode, Friends takes the action outside for a change (always a tricky prospect for a three-camera, live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience sitcom) so that the friends can do what so many families and friend groups do in reality: play a game of tag football. (Although, to be clear, it’s a weird, fake-looking game of tag football because it has to be presented on a tiny sitcom stage.) The episode wins points (that’s a football term) for solidifying one of Friends’ best running bits: Monica’s intensely competitive nature. It’s so hilariously toxic that this here football game marks the first Thanksgiving pigskin she and Ross have played since she broke Ross’s nose in a family football game long ago (the sixth annual “Geller Cup”).
5. “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” (Season 1, 1994)
I can’t prove it, but I’m going to go ahead and say that with this Thanksgiving episode of a show called Friends, both the concept and term “Friends-Giving” were simultaneously invented and popularized. Each year, there are so many articles about how an increasingly large percentage of the population opts to skip heading home and instead get together with their circle of friends for the traditional Thanksgiving feast. In this, the first Friends Thanksgiving, Monica and Ross are forced to celebrate the holiday on their own in the city because their parents went away on a trip. It’s also the episode where actor Joey finds out that he’s the face of VD, as he appears on posters all over the city bearing his image and the caption “What Mario isn’t telling you.” It gets even more zany: Ultimately, the Underdog balloon escapes the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and when the Friends go up on the roof to watch, they lock themselves out of the apartment and the dinner gets ruined. So, they eat cheese sandwiches courtesy of Chandler. And really, isn’t this what Thanksgiving is all about?
4. “The One With the Rumor” (Season 8, 2001)
With recent cultural strides, this episode can come off as problematic in much of its humor. But there’s also a lot of fun stuff “The One With the Rumor,” which, when it aired in 2001, was a major TV event and a triumph of stunt casting. Monica invites to dinner an old friend from high school, Will, who was an even bigger dork than Ross back in the day. Well, guess what: Since graduation, he got hot. Like, super hot — so attractive that he’s portrayed by Brad Pitt, who at the time was married to Friends star Jennifer Aniston. Will reveals that, because Rachel was so mean back in school, he was the one who started the rumor that she possessed both male and female sexual organs. Also, Ross helped spread the rumor, so that causes a rift between him and Rachel, who are currently on a break from hating each other. Elsewhere, Joey, “because he’s a Tribbiani,” tries to eat an entire turkey by himself, which is awesome.
3. “The One With Chandler in a Box” (Season 4, 1997)
In this Thanksgiving installment, everyone is having gross and/or strange love and sex problems, which manifest in a variety of plot breakthroughs, sight gags, and incest gags that make this episode of Friends feel like a toned-down ’90s version of Arrested Development. Among the weirdness: Monica gets into Tim Burke (Michael Vartan), the son of her old boyfriend Richard. Also weird: To punish Chandler for kissing his girlfriend, Joey makes his best friend and roommate spend six hours of Thanksgiving locked in a huge wooden box. It ranks so high because Chandler making jokes from a box for the entire episode is just so strange and funny.
2. “The One Where Ross Got High” (Season 6, 1999)
They could have called this “The One Where Rachel Makes a Trifle But the Cookbook Pages Were Stuck Together, and She Makes an Unholy Combination of Shepherd’s Pie and Trifle Instead, and Joey Eats It Anyway, Because He’s Joey.” It’s got that, and that alone would be more than enough to land this episode high on the list. But there are so many other great elements as well, like how Phoebe briefly nurses a crush on Monica’s dad (onetime Hollywood dreamboat Elliott Gould), and how Ross has to admit to his parents that he was the one in college who smoked pot that one time, not Chandler, whom they hate because they thought he smoked pot in college that one time.
1. “The One With All the Thanksgivings” (Season 5, 1998)
Also known as “The Flashback Episode,” this one is over and above the best because it’s packed not only with so many jokes, but also tons of Friends lore. We aren’t privy to much of the present-day Thanksgiving because everyone is so stuffed from another one of chef Monica’s legendary super suppers, so all they can do is reminiscence about their worst Thanksgivings. The episode then dives deep into a cornucopia of humiliation. We see the origin story of Chandler’s hatred of Thanksgiving (his parents announced their divorce at the table because his father was sleeping with the “houseboy,” just as that very houseboy cheerfully asks young Bing, “More turkey, Mr. Chandler?”). We see young-adult Monica attempt to seduce young-adult Chandler but instead accidentally cut off his toe, which somehow has never come up before on five seasons of Friends, and which also feels like some nice revenge for his many cracks at Monica’s expense when she was heavier. And, of course, we get both Monica and Joey with a turkey stuck on their heads. There is actually nothing funnier than a grown human with a turkey stuck on their head.