"Best Thanksgiving Episode Ever" or Ethical Minefield?

Part 1: Taking a (mostly fond) look at a classic TV sitcom 45 years later.

Posted Nov 21, 2020

 M W Wolff
"1 Turkey, 4 Ovens"
Source: M W Wolff

There is a classic television sitcom episode, a 1975 outing of The Bob Newhart Show titled “Over The River And Through The Woods” that is considered by many the greatest Thanksgiving-themed episode ever. Over the seven-plus decades of television situation comedies most shows have seemed to try harder on Christmas episodes, so there’s not quite as stiff competition in the Thanksgiving category. But still, there are a respectable amount of entries in the latter lane and this is one of the best. (However, it is actually, in my opinion, the 2nd best Thanksgiving-themed episode ever, with another being the truly greatest.)

The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78), for the uninitiated, features Bob Newhart’s Dr. Bob Hartley (from whence the infamous “Hi Bobdrinking game comes) as a wryly low-key psychologist living with his lovely wife, Emily, in Chicago in the 1970s. The couple has no children (other than their man-child neighbor, Howard, an airline navigator). Dr. Hartley’s work life is populated by an assortment of mildly comic fellow healthcare providers and staff in a downtown medical building and a gaggle of worried-well patients, the most prominent of whom is depressed real estate tycoon, Mr. Carlin

M W Wolff
Bob Newhart Bobblehead
Source: M W Wolff

As a child, I loved this show. I still love it today. I own the complete series on DVD. Newhart’s portrayal of the practice of helping others learn to cope with life and its problems played at least a small role in my eventual entry into behavioral health care. And elements of Newhart’s masterful comedy stylings, such as the slight stammer with which I add emphasis to some reflections, are unsurprisingly part of my therapeutic persona.

However, watching “Over The River and Through the Woods” again recently has left me with an uneasy feeling—Dr. Hartley, hereafter referred to as Bob, may not be a very good therapist. Not only do his patients seldom seem to get much better, but he may, in fact, on occasion, be in violation of a select number of professional ethical principles. (I make this declaration somewhat tongue-in-cheek; all medical shows, cop shows, lawyer shows — all of them, every genre, really — are known to get things wrong in terms of "if this actually happened in real life.")

Perhaps the most problematic bit of evidence of Bob’s limitations as a clinician is his relationship with one patient, the aforementioned Mr. Carlin. There are some very worrisome aspects of this doctor-patient dyad and certain of them come to the fore rather prominently in this outing. 

First, some background on Mr. Carlin: According to the show’s lore, the deeply neurotic Mr. Carlin has been a patient of Bob’s since he began his practice. He sees Dr. Hartley (frequently) on an individual basis and is also a member of more than one of Dr. Hartley’s therapy groups. He seems to have a standing appointment whenever he wants one. As such a frequent presence on Bob’s calendar, he can be assumed to represent a rather substantial portion of Bob’s income. 

If so, it might help explain Bob’s inability to maintain much of a professional boundary with his constant patient. This is no Shrink Next Door kind of situation (although there is a later episode in which Bob invests in one of Mr. Carlin’s business ventures); in fact, it's rather the opposite as the successful businessman patient tends to take repeated advantage of his therapist. There are highly permeable and/or poorly-defined boundaries out the wazoo here. There is likely some element of codependency in play.

In the episode in question, Bob foregoes a trip with Emily to Seattle for Thanksgiving with his in-laws in order to be present for any crises his patients (read: Mr. Carlin) might encounter. 

“Emily, you know, uh, holidays can be the roughest times for my patients,” he responds when she reminds him at Halloween of their Thanksgiving plans. “You know I … I don’t like to be that far away from them,” he continues to his nonplussed spouse as he tries to beg off participating in the trip. 

Sure enough, Mr. Carlin reacts angrily shortly afterward when Bob tells him he plans to be gone for a single Thursday. A worried Bob goes home and tells Emily he’ll have to stay. A sanguine Emily says it’s fine if Bob stays behind, but she’s going anyway. Bob is somewhat surprised, but glumly accepts the fact that he’ll be spending the holiday alone after being browbeaten by his patient.

However, weeks later and just after Emily has jetted off to the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Carlin abruptly declares himself free of any need for help during the holiday at hand. “Dr. Hartley, you know that expression ‘patient, heal thyself?’" he asks, before outlining his unhealthful plan to stay up for several days so he can be sure to sleep blissfully through the holiday. Bob blithely accepts this and it being too late to join his wife, makes rather dispirited plans to spend the holiday with his colleague Jerry, the dentist from down the hall. Mr. Carlin, overhearing the germination of the impromptu get together, nervily invites himself. Bob blithely accepts this as well, although he is clearly displeased at being steamrolled and demoralized by his good intentions backfiring.

Come the appointed day, Mr. Carlin arrives at the sad party with a bottle of Scotch as a “gift” to his reluctant host for which he quickly demands reimbursement.  He joins an already mildly inebriated Bob and Jerry watching college football. Soon their hapless festivity is augmented by neighbor Howard, whose own holiday plans have also gone woefully wrong. The quartet goes on to get increasingly sozzled throughout the day, failing hilariously at plotting the roasting of a turkey, and drunkenly ordering Chinese food with reckless abandon. In a departure from the flat and surly tone of much of the afternoon, there is at one point a spirited singalong of the 19th-century poem which eventually became the standard which gives the episode its title. Bad knock-knock jokes are also attempted.

To sum up: Hilarity, bathos, and pathos ensue. TV Guide in 1997 named this outing No #9 on a list of the All-Time Greatest TV Episodes—not just the best Thanksgiving episode ever (or as some would assert, the 2nd best).

Next time, the ethical implications of Bob’s behavior in this episode will be examined and analyzed. To be clear, the entirety of Dr. Bob Hartley’s perceived transgressions over 6 seasons is probably less egregious than any given 15 minutes of a run of the mill episode of Frasier.

References

Andrews, T. (2018, May 1). Bob Newhart’s ‘quietly revolutionary’ sitcom ended 40 years ago. But it changed TV. https://www.washingtonpost.com/. Retrieved November 21, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2018/05/01/bobnewharts-quietly-revolutionary-sitcom-ended-40-years-ago-but-it-changed-tv/