It is going to be an unusual Thanksgiving night in Television Land.
Usually, assuming lower viewership on the holiday, the networks air films during prime time that have already been seen in theatrical release. Last Thanksgiving, CBS aired "Grumpy Old Men," while NBC showed "Home Alone" and ABC offered "Scrooge."
But, this year, for the first time since 1995, Thanksgiving falls during a November "sweeps" ratings period when audience measurements are used to set future advertising rates. And, so, one of the networks, NBC, is trying something different in hopes of capturing a big audience: It's offering Thanksgiving-themed episodes of its hit Thursday night series, as well as bringing two of its strongest other series, "Will & Grace" and "Just Shoot Me," over from their regular nights.
CBS is going to compete, too, though in a slightly more traditional way. Trying to hold viewers following a late football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, CBS will offer an entertainment special, "Shania Plays Texas Stadium," featuring a Shania Twain concert that was taped after a Cowboys' game earlier this month.
Hoping to hold Twain's country music fans, CBS will follow her concert with Reba McEntire as a turn-of-the-century widow trying to save the family farm in a made-for-TV movie, "Secret of Giving." It's about Christmas, though, not Thanksgiving -- by my reckoning, making it the first Christmas movie of the holiday season. Isn't that a thrill?
In terms of entertainment, special episodes of hit series like the ones NBC is offering tonight can often feel forced -- as is the case with "Friends." But these are, after all, some of America's favorite shows, and when the producers get it right, as they do with tonight's "ER," the result is special.
There's some sociology afoot, too: The success or failure of NBC's strategy will give us an indication of whether family gatherings and traditional holiday rituals of conversation and games can still compete with the tube.
Don't come to NBC tonight looking for re-enactments of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want" illustration that shows several generations gathered around a food-laden table while Mom places a platter with a perfectly browned turkey before them and Dad looks on approvingly. On NBC, almost no one has a happy Thanksgiving. There are two themes running through most show: dysfunctional family gatherings and family secrets.
'Friends': Social disasters
The evening starts with "Friends" and the news from Monica (Courteney Cox Arquette) that her parents (Elliott Gould and Christina Pickles) are coming to Thanksgiving dinner. The problem: She and Chandler (Matthew Perry) are now living together, and Monica has kept their relationship a secret from her parents because they hate Chandler.
Monica hopes to use the turkey dinner as a chance to tell her parents they are living together, while Chandler desperately tries to make them like him. But, of course, nothing goes right.
The culinary disaster peaks with the dessert made by Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). The goal was a trifle with layer after layer of ladyfingers, jam, custard, raspberries and bananas. But two pages stuck together in her cookbook, and so Rachel concocts a trifle with custard, jam, ladyfingers, raspberries, bananas and beef sauteed with peas and onions. She made half a trifle and half a shepherd's pie.
But that's nothing compared to the social disaster caused by a secret Ross (David Schwimmer) has been keeping from Chandler, Monica and his parents for years. A hint: It involves college and drugs.
There's a 30-second stretch during which all the secrets get revealed, and it is terrific. But, beyond that, the half-hour is anything but inspired.
But, if you're a fan of "Friends," this is the "family" you probably want to be with, and just having them there is what matters.
Farce on 'Frasier'
They are also having Thanksgiving dinner on "Frasier" tonight, and the big attraction here is the return of Bebe Neuwirth as Frasier's ex-wife, Lillith.
Lillith is reluctantly invited to join Frasier and the other Cranes when she finds her dinner plans canceled. She gets the news while dropping their son, Frederick (Trevor Einhorn), off with dad for the holiday.
Frederick spends most of the day trying to get mom and dad back together, but not for any sentimental reasons. This is, after all, the child of Lillith and Frasier.
Neuwirth is terrific, so what's new? Isn't she always? And the script has enough misdirection, confusion and clever moments to remind you that this is the American sitcom as French farce, and we have nothing to feel inferior about.
But I remain troubled by the depiction of Lillith as a woman who is icy (the NBC press release says "chilly"), demanding and emasculating. Frasier's father calls her a "witch," but his tone of voice tells you he means it to start with a "b."
The character has been identified as Jewish by the producers as far back as "Cheers," and female Jewish characters have been routinely depicted in such a stereotypical and negative way in sitcoms.
The producers of "Cheers," smart as they are, really should show more sensitivity. There is nothing funny about Jewish women being depicted this way for millions of viewers week after week in prime time, network television.
Springing a surprise
The funniest sitcom of the night is "Will & Grace," and it features a secret that their friend Jack (Sean Hayes) has been keeping from his mother (Veronica Cartwright): the fact that he's gay.
Will (Erin McCormack) and Grace (Debra Messing) decide Jack will tell his mother about his sexual orientation during Thanksgiving dinner. But first they have to tell Jack they've invited his mother to dinner.
"Speaking of surprises, we're going to have a special guest for dinner tomorrow," Will says.
"Is this where you guys try to be funny and tell me that Cher is coming," Jack says. "Well, it's not going to work this time." Pause. "But is she?"
"Come on, Jack, Cher hasn't eaten since the '70s," Grace says.
The entire episode, titled "Homo for the Holidays," moves at that pace, with that kind of wit and non-stop pop-culture references. The writing in this half hour is at least twice as smart, funny and focused as that of "Friends."
Jack does eventually come out to mom, but has mom got a secret to share with him. Watch Will, Grace and Karen (Megan Mullally) while Jack and mom play out their big scene. The three form a kind of chorus line behind the two main players and move in absolutely perfect harmony, using their bodies as instruments of comedy to react to the back and forth between mother and son. It's original, funny and brilliant, one of the comic high points of the fall season.
'ER': dramatic high point
"ER" provides tonight's dramatic high point.
Last year when George Clooney was sleepwalking through his final episode of television's highest-rated series, you couldn't help but be struck by what an inspired performance Julianna Margulies was delivering in a supporting role as Carol Hathaway. Margulies doesn't have to steal the show from anyone tonight, because she's the one who's featured, as Hathaway gives birth to premature twins.
In 20 or so years of reviewing television shows, I have never once been impressed by a birth scene. They seem too easy. Of course, there's drama with all the grunting, sweating and screaming.
But Margulies blew me away with her delivery-room performance -- not once but twice. Her performance throughout the hour was one revelation after another, and she really made you feel her pain.
And, yes, there is a truly dysfunctional family dinner here, too, as Dr. Corday (Alex Kingston) plays host to Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) and Greene's precocious daughter (Yvonne Zima) and dad (John Cullum). Greene, Hathaway's Lamaze coach, is called away to assist at the births, and the British-born Corday is left to slug it out with dad over who contributed more to the Normandy Beach invasion in World War II, the Americans or the Brits.
Watch Margulies in the final moments of the hour as she looks about her hospital room and then out the window at the late-night falling snow. She manages to suggest more of the character's inner state with this one little look than some dramas do in an hour of dialogue.
"ER" is one the few television dramas that isn't afraid to let the screen be silent every now and then so we can appreciate the greatness of a performance.
And in this corner ...
And, if all of this isn't enough for you on this holiday night, there is that gentle, loving, family favorite, a slice of Americana straight off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post courtesy of UPN: "WWF Smackdown!" with the Undertaker, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Chyna.