As Sarah Vowell – author of "The Wordy Shipmates," about the New England Puritans – has pointed out, these episodes, after all, are less a service to history and more a means to a show's own selfish ends.
"Sitcoms are like people – they're self-absorbed. What they're most interested in is themselves," she said on the radio program "This American Life." "And when they do history, they always put themselves at the center of the story."
This approach remained even after presentations of Pilgrim history shifted from the incredibly idealistic to extremely cynical.
"It has changed a great deal since the '60s and a lot the change is this challenge to the past – what happened to the Pilgrims was not all that wonderful," says James W. Baker, the former head of research of Plimoth Plantation and author of "Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday." When invoking the historical Thanksgiving, nodding to these dark realities – the high mortality rates, the feverish Puritan faith, the crimes against the Native Americans – is almost a requirement in how pop culture looks at the historical Thanksgiving today. But even still, it does this with contemporary anxieties in mind.
The best of example of this may be the short-lived 1999 CBS sitcom "Thanks," perhaps the most subversive Thanksgiving television show of all. In fact the premise of the entire series was a parody of the hardships the Pilgrims faced. It featured the characters and forms that are staples of the typical half-hour sitcom, but it threw those conventions against the grim circumstances of 1620s New England, with lines like, "It's a beautiful day. People are airing out their clothes, dragging out their dead."
As it were, Vowell was also a vocal champion of the show. Writing for Salon, she compared "Thanks" to Arthur Miller's "The Crucible:"
I'm tempted to say that a satire on Puritan morality is entirely appropriate at this moment in American history. But a satire on Puritan morality is appropriate at every moment in American history.
Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" used the Salem witch hunts as a way of talking about the McCarthy witch hunts. Though it's not Arthur Miller, in its small, sitcom way, "Thanks" does lay bare the Puritan underpinnings of contemporary life.
Maybe it was those ambitions or maybe it was just its absurd setting, but "Thanks" never caught on with viewers, and it was cancelled after six episodes. The line audiences draw in subverting Thanksgiving can be seen in "Pieces of April," a family dysfunction Thanksgiving film, in a scene that touches on modern discomforts about Thanksgiving's historical legacy.
The wayward April first attempts to explain Thanksgiving to an immigrant family while incorporating both the well-known story as well as its negative ramifications. She ultimately falls back on a far more simplistic description:
"Once there was this one day where everybody seemed to know they needed each other...this one day, they knew for certain that they couldn't do it alone."
As Baker puts it, "Even in movies, they've finally come around – after endless strife and problems – to end with something sentimentally close to what people expect."