The Yam Sham by Avery Debow

Thanksgiving.

Norman Rockwell has ruined it for all of us.  Despite wild efforts to attain that perfect picture of familial cohesion and harmony, a blot always seems to mar the attempted reproduction.

You know how it goes—the pie crust burns;  the dishes pile high enough to graze the dust bunnies clinging to the ceiling fan; your old boyfriend shows up and sets about unnerving your dinner guests; your best friend develops a conscience about the historical ramifications of the day; and your other best friend is cursed with a range of diseases by a vengeful Chumash Indian spirit.

Something always seems to take away from that imagined, quintessential American moment, and turn it into something meaner, something un-Rockwellian.  That truth comes to light—especially in a genre driven television series.

In an episode entitled “Pangs,” stressed, lonely Buffy  the Vampire Slayer delves into her memory’s rendition of a perfect holiday—the Rockwell Holiday.  With no family to speak of, she forces friends into the conventional roles of patriarch and kin.  Even as vengeful Chumash spirits descend with bows, arrows, and mystical bears, turning the perfect table setting into kindling, Buffy refuses to relinquish her hold on the Great American Turkey Dream.

Clark Kent fares no better in the Season 10 episode of  Smallville, entitled, “Ambush.”  Finally united with his true love, Lois, Clark settles in for a cozy Thanksgiving for two when Lois’ sister and militant, military father drop in.  The father harangues, the sister goads, and poor Clark runs around completing the herculean list of prove-you’re-worth-my-daughter chores the father has provided him.   It is only after Clark saves Lois from a deadly missile that he finally proves he is man enough to carve the turkey.

The shattered myth of the perfect Thanksgiving predates modern genre television, as well.  Poor Samantha Stevens, the beleaguered witch on Bewitched, has just pulled her turkey from the oven and declared it, “Gorgeous,” when dotty Aunt Clara comes thundering down her chimney and ends up sending the family back  in time to the first Thanksgiving.  As it turns out, even the very first Thanksgiving was hardly paradigmatic.  Almost immediately, the happy couple are separated according to conventions of the time.  The women are sent off to slave over kettles while Darren sits down to eat with the men—and winds up getting accused of witchcraft.

So, what do these shows teach us?  That television can be a bit silly, yes.  But, also that the notion of the perfect Thanksgiving, the one drummed into our heads since we were able to sit at the tiny table and hold a fork, is—as one Slayer aptly put it—a yam sham.

It is only a picture, an encapsulated moment, in which the intended spirit of Thanksgiving can ever shine through. The coming together for a holiday is the easy part.  It’s the sticking around—even when things go terribly, horribly wrong—that matters. And if no one has to stab a mystical, maddened bear in the dining room, well, that’s just the freshly whipped topping on the pumpkin pie.

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