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'Bob's Burgers' Thanksgiving episodes are the holiday TV specials we deserve

Thanksgiving with the imperfect, lovable, hilarious Belcher family — and my brother — finally makes me feel like I am home.
FOX's "Bob's Burgers" - Season Seven
The Belcher kids work on their own version of the school's Thanksgiving play in the "The Quirkducers" episode of "Bob's Burgers" in Season 7.FOX via Getty Images

Thanksgiving is a time for food, family (willingly or unwillingly) and, of course, holiday TV specials. Rankings of the best turkey-themed episodes invariably include modern classics like “Friends” mixed with the more traditional “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” and “Bewitched,” with perhaps a nod or two to the more irreverent “Simpsons” or “South Park.”

All of these specials have their merits, but for a truly heartwarming Thanksgiving, “Bob’s Burgers” has my vote.

The underrated animated Fox sitcom has been on the air for 10 seasons, and for 10 years I’ve laughed, cried and obsessed alongside the quirky Belcher family, with their burger puns and hilarious musical numbers. And yet, as great the show is every week, the Thanksgiving-themed episodes really showcase what makes this series stand out. Expect a lot of hijinks, original music and ways to subvert classic television tropes.

As great the show is every week, the Thanksgiving-themed episodes really showcase what makes this series stand out. Expect a lot of hijinks, original music and ways to subvert classic television tropes.

More wholesome than “The Simpsons” and more empowering than “South Park,” “Bob’s Burgers” knows how to tell jokes that don’t punch down. The show has its darker and sobering moments, but I’d argue few TV families are as supportive or as genuine. The Belchers are constantly looking for ways to keep their burger business afloat, while also keeping each other in check. Welcome to life as a middle-class family in America.

The family patriarch and titular protagonist, Bob Belcher (voiced by comedian H. Jon Benjamin), is the creative force behind this tiny and not-so-popular restaurant operation. He’s willing to pay for pricey black garlic or high quality FDA prime beef — which ends up not being beef at all. Bob truly cares about the meals he prepares, a passion fully on display during the show’s season three Thanksgiving episode, “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal.” Bob loves the holiday and all of its traditions — his family not so much. But when his family bails on Thanksgiving to run with turkeys (literally) or to save a pardoned bird from being slaughtered, Bob never gives up. His faith in his family never wavers; even when they go their own way, he’s waiting for them to come home with open arms and a tasty side dish.

Bob’s true passion clearly lies behind the grill, crafting imaginative burgers with playful puns. His youngest child, Louise (voiced by Kristen Schaal), loves to rename these burgers with devilish titles. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their playfully oppositional dynamic. Louise is the black sheep of the family. She knows how to pick locks, trick her older siblings out of their allowance and is constantly cooking up schemes. It’s no surprise that in season four’s “Turkey in a Can” episode, she was accused of an atrocious crime: putting Bob's beloved turkey in the toilet. But in a nod to their instinctive parenting skills, Bob and his wife, Linda, give Louise the benefit of the doubt. Sabotage (and self-sabotage) may be a running theme in this series, but there’s always room for redemption.

Mom Linda (voiced by John Roberts), has fiery wine mom energy and an insatiable love of show tunes. In the series’ first Thanksgiving episode, Linda gets the idea to perform a Thanksgiving song. Completely improvised by Roberts, this nonsensical jingle becomes a true heartbeat of the show. Indeed, music is a crucial part of the series. Gene (voiced by Eugene Mirman), the Belchers only son, has extreme middle-child syndrome and shares a budding musical interest like his mother. A comic ham, Gene is always looking for a way to be involved with his family’s hijinks, musical or otherwise. We all have a Gene in our family trying to be the center of attention! And we love them anyway.

The last of the bunch is Tina (voiced by Dan Mintz), a boy-crazy teen whose naive antics play against her desire to grow up as quickly as possible. Season seven’s Thanksgiving episode "The Quirkducers," is a Tina-centric episode where she produces a Thanksgiving play for school. Louise and Gene hatch a plan to ruin her show, so they can head home early for the holidays. Instead, we get a heartwarming episode that embraces Tina’s awkward personality. “I wished I was someone else. But it takes guts to be yourself,” sings Tina. What made her supposedly different ends up making her a star.

Taken together, these specials paint a portrait of family that loves one another, even when they hate or misunderstand one another. It’s a lesson that resonates on a deeply personal level for me as well. The show came along at a critical point of my life. In 2012, I was a senior in college and suddenly couldn’t afford to live on campus anymore. So half of the week I would crash on an air mattress in my friend’s apartment. That year I had two jobs, one internship and a senior thesis. Stressed, anxious and depressed, I needed an escape. And then I discovered “Bob’s Burgers.”

Taken together, these specials paint a portrait of family that loves each other, even when they hate or misunderstand each other. It’s a lesson that resonates on a deeply personal level for me as well.

Over the years, the show has also helped me forge a strong bond with my twin brother, Myles, another superfan of the show. Our relationship was pretty fragile growing up. He was everything I was not — extroverted, popular and positive — and I resented him for it. But we’ve created our own special language and way to check in with each other through sending texts and gifs about the show. He was my Linda to my Bob. We even have matching holiday sweaters. Slowly, I’m trying to convince him to get a “Bob’s Burgers” tattoo to match my inked homage to Louise.

Our yearly ritual is watching the Thanksgiving “Bob’s Burgers” episodes together the night before turkey day. Sometimes this tradition is virtual, since we live a few hours from each other. Getting older, it’s more difficult to spend time together with busy work schedules and bustling personal lives. But we’re trying.

Even better, the show has actually helped me acknowledge and tackle some of the things that created the rift between Myles and me when we were growing up.

What initially attracted me to this show was how close-knit this fictional family is. I craved that sense family closeness. But I’ve realized over the years that just as the Belcher family is far from perfect, the idealized version of Myles I’ve long envied is more fiction than fact. In reality, my brother isn’t perfect either — he gets angry, he feels alone, he gets depressed.

Ultimately, “Bob’s Burgers” is about beautiful, imperfect love. And it’s taught me and Myles how to love each other, too. At the same time, it is an unflinchingly progressive series that celebrates feminism and consistently complicates traditional gender roles. So while it may not be “prestige TV,” Thanksgiving with the Belchers — and my brother — makes me feel like I am home. And how many TV shows can do that?