Every good dramatic television show has at least one Thanksgiving episode and depending on how long it’s on the air, it may even have more than that. Many of them are very good, but one of my absolute favorites is the West Wing Thanksgiving episode from the third season, “Indians in the Lobby.”
President Bartlett is probably my favorite fictional president. He’s incredibly smart, witty when he wants to be, and also incurably human in character. I mean, he rides his bike into a tree during the pilot. How much more human can you get?
During the episode the senior staff juggle a few crises. CJ meets with two Native Americans camped in the lobby demanding an audience with the president to discuss better public health projects on their reservation; Josh tries to gain the extradition of a teenage boy who murdered his teacher and fled to Italy; and Sam questions a new poverty income index that could classify millions of additional people as “poor” virtually overnight.
But what I love about this episode is the fact that while all of this is happening, the President is most concerned with how best to cook a gourmet turkey. The crises are something that he can handle and figure out; how not to poison his Thanksgiving guests is another animal altogether.
He first brings it up with CJ in the opening scene of the show, but CJ couldn’t care less about the way he cooks his turkey and it shows as she receives the lecture. Then Toby warns the president about undercooking the stuffing. Leo provides a practical perspective and suggests that the president talk to the head chef about his concerns, but President Bartlett adamantly refuses to speak to the head chef. This is mostly out of pride and also a slight miscommunication which happened the week before. “You gave Renee a firm talking to,” Leo says. “Yes,” replies President Bartlett. “And while he didn’t deserve it, he will someday.” So the president leaves Leo’s office, without answers, and the following very memorable exchange occurs with the president’s teenage assistant/body man, Charlie:
President Bartlett: “This time of year, there should be a hotline you can call with questions about cooking turkeys. A special 800 number where the phones are staffed by experts.”
Charlie: There is.
President Bartlett: What do you mean?
Charlie: The Butterball hotline.
President Bartlett: Butterball has a hotline?
Charlie: Yes. It’s a special 800 number and the phones are staffed by experts.
President Bartlett: Are you kidding me?
Charlie: No, sir.
President Bartlett: God, I’m sorry. I love my country. Charlie, get me the number of the Butterball hotline.
With all of the political drama and other serious crises that come up on the West Wing, moments like this are a welcome reminder of just how human the president and their staff are. Sure, he controls an arsenal of nuclear missiles, but he also makes mysterious phone calls to the Butterball hotline by pretending he’s from Fargo, North Dakota. Scenes like this bring the show back down to Earth and make for a beautiful Thanksgiving episode by reminding us that at the end of the day, we’re all just people.
What’s your favorite Thanksgiving television episode? My runners up were “Slapsgiving” from How I Met Your Mother and “A Deep Fried Korean Thanksgiving” from Gilmore Girls. Let me know in the comments down below!