A classic Seder scene from Gossip Girl.
Photo: The CW
This article originally ran in 2019 and is being republished in honor of Passover.
Why is this list different from all other lists? For one, it rounds up Passover episodes, a rare and under-examined breed of holiday special. I’m happy to be corrected (I do self-identify as a Simple Child–Wicked Child cusp), but Passover representation in television was something of a desert until the Rugrats special came along in 1994, giving parents a way to entertain the kids’ table and parting the sea for future Passover specials to get real, messy, and culturally specific.
Like a Thanksgiving episode, Passover specials gather characters in that most explosive of tragicomic setups, a dinner party, for dialogue-rich ensemble scenes marked by familiar-to-some holiday traditions and beats. But like a hostage situation, the best Seder episodes play up the gathering’s inherent, inevitable claustrophobic tension, as bitter, increasingly hungry family members pass through the stages of boredom to simmering irritation to inebriation to chaos. And that’s the fundamental paradox of the Seder, that most of these episodes tease out: They acknowledge that the tradition is both so boring, and somehow so prone to histrionic family mishegoss. So hide your phone behind your Haggadah, sit back (recline, even), and take a look at these 11 TV Seders, ranked in order of accuracy — which is to say, ranked by how much shit goes down at the table.
It’s not surprising that the Sesame Street Passover special is the least realistic based on our metric of Shit Going Down, as it primarily aims to be an educational special based on a very convenient rhyme. The primary conflict is that Grover and his friend Shoshannah (played by a Muppet and not Zosia Mamet) can’t find the maror, which isn’t the end of the world — but hey, preschool stakes — so they go searching for it with Anneliese van der Pol, of That’s So Raven and Cameo fame. Presumably most of the episode’s drama happened offscreen, as Jake Gyllenhaal is in attendance but Maggie’s nowhere to be seen.
Lois finds out that she’s Jewish on her mother’s side (her mother had hidden her heritage so that the family could join a country club) and decides to host a Seder. Peter shows up to stop it dressed as the Easter bunny, but Jesus appears to talk him down. Also, the animators slap some payas on Stewie and he rips out Meg’s heart. So … a low-key episode of Family Guy. There may be a lot of mishegoss going on here, but the emotional stakes are nonexistent, and therefore it doesn’t really count as drama.
It’s always “Chrismukkah this and Chrismukkah that” with The O.C., and granted, Seth Cohen and his hybrid holiday really helped carry the Cute Jewish Boy torch forward from Paul Rudd into the new millennium. But whither the lowly first-season Passover episode? Most of the drama happens pre-Seder here: Marissa runs away after finding out about her mother sleeping with Luke, Ryan goes after her, and to top it all off Sandy’s mother (the titular Nana) is in town, and she’s dying. In the background of all of this, Passover preparations are swirling, with Summer learning the Four Questions (in English and Hebrew, no less) to impress the Nana, for Seth’s sake. The actual dinner comes at the end as a cute moment, with Sandy leading the proceedings as an Aqualung song plays. I miss 2004.
In which a kinda-creepy child actor sings the four questions as Mandy Patinkin and Miranda Otto (or as I like to call them, Mirandy Pottonkin) gaze on in contemplation. The absolute chaos of the drama befalling Claire Danes in the cutaway scenes only underscore how peaceful and orderly this Seder really is, but it does end in the host questioning whether or not Saul (Mandy, of course) is a “true friend to Israel.” The geopolitical talk is kept very quiet and polite, but it is about CIA involvement in Syria, and it did give me too-real flashbacks to heated screaming matches with conservative extended family members at Seders past.
On paper, this is a low-drama Seder. The Sports Night crew has to work late on Passover, and so Jeremy and Danny host a Seder for the gang in the conference room, complete with a Passover story script that the team rehearses during commercial breaks. Josh Charles gives a speech about rumors about setbacks and firings and shares a hug with Peter Krause, and most of the episode’s drama has been resolved. But none of this accounts for watching this episode in 2019, and the sheer, invigorating thrill of seeing Felicity Huffman speak about justice and freedom as the Voice of God.
The Pfefferman clan served us everything we’d expect from them at this point in their season-three finale Seder: honesty, drama, dysfunction, and mess. Ali and Sarah improvise a cruise ship Seder plate from choice selections at the buffet (I think that’s a pork rib standing in for the shankbone), and the family gathers around it on the carpeted floor of the ship’s empty chapel to appease Ali’s whim of starting a new tradition. Joshie and Shelly storm off before long, but not before Ali leads a prayer, stating they’ve been “invited by the feminine spirit, she who holds space,” which should be made Passover canon at this point, tbh.
High Maintenance began its life as a web series, and this episode was a high-water mark of its pre-HBO run, as it signifies what the series does best: letting us peek into the lives of others, suggesting how much lies beyond the ten minutes we get with them, through a thousand little character moments. We get the goyishe caterer pronouncing “karpeth” the way your worst friend pronounces “Barcelona” (for more of this, skip directly ahead to No. 2). There’s bacon fat in the matzo balls. There’s the train wreck daughter and the asexual magician son, there’s a child walking in on a double hand job, and when Elijah appears, he takes the very Brooklyn-appropriate form of the family’s dealer. Seder with the Waxman family feels like a fully realized short film, and it achieves Top Mishegoss Points.
The Gossip Girl Seder episode may be the Servant of Two Masters of this generation. It’s Noël Coward; it’s commedia dell’arte; it’s a study in human folly, what with the high-society secrets, the couplings and recouplings and misunderstandings, the Upstairs Downstairs class comedy, and Wallace Shawn just trying to get through the blessings. Dan takes a job as a cater-waiter for a gig that turns out to be a Seder at the Waldorf’s, until Serena drags him into her drama. She married a man named Gabriel (like the angel! Like the herald!) in Barcelona, and her mother simply cannot find out. Gabriel looms over the episode’s first act like Elijah the ghost, and when he appears, he takes the human form of Armie Hammer himself, who is not content to interrupt and derail the ceremonial candle-lighting of a nice, quiet, Jewish holiday in Call Me by Your Name alone. Chairs swap, lies abound, and Serena gets into Brown. But the entire episode solidifies itself as canon when Armie first appears and Gossip Girl’s voice-over rewards us with this precious gift: “Baruch atah ay dios mio!” All in all, this whole Seder is massive Dayenu energy.
This episode opens with Billy and Julie protesting a production of a Sondheim revival starring the cast of the Big Bang Theory — called Bazinga in the Park With George — so its mere, precious existence feels like a perfectly calibrated Passover miracle. When Billy takes a job as a warm-up comic for Larry Wilmore and her husband gets assaulted at a PBS conference in Jupiter, Florida, Julie has to attend Seder hosted by her passive-aggressive mother (Andrea Martin) solo. It’s a challenge of biblical proportions, because, as she puts it: “I haven’t had to sit through a family Seder by myself since I was a witch in college.” To make matters worse, the walk-in clinic in the back of a Quizno’s refuses to prescribe her anymore meds, so as an alternate coping mechanism, she sneaks away from the table to listen to a meditation app in which Danny Aiello hypnotizes her into wiring him $700. One Freaky Friday mother-daughter swap and one aunt with an “on-again coke addiction” played by Stockard Channing later, and Julie has made it through another Seder, in one piece. Bazinga!
This is the Passover special that started it all, and while most of the nostalgia goes to the Ten Commandments-but-with-babies reenactments, weaving through this episode are cutbacks to maybe the most realistic depiction of a messy family Seder to date. Charlotte Pickles has to put her cell phone away (and the Sultan of Brunei on hold) for a few hours; grandparents Boris and Minka argue over which of their parents’ spotted old wine glasses from the shtetl they’ll unpack and use; and Drew and Stu are irritable and bored. Real ones who had the bright-orange Nickelodeon VHS tape know: These levels of whining and kvetching are unparalleled in children’s animation. Representation matters!
Larry plans to host Seder mostly for his father’s sake, and as with all classic episodes of Curb, the situation quickly spirals out of control as Larry commits social plague after social plague. The first of the offending invitees is Jeff’s Dubya-loving brother-in-law. There’s a surgeon played by Rob Huebel who may or may not be stealing Larry’s newspapers. There’s the elderly woman who lives across the street, Larry’s star witness, who faints shortly upon arrival and spends the Seder splayed out on a bed upstairs (leading to a great visual gag of kids looking for the afikomen under her unconscious body). There’s a severed hand thrown into the mix somewhere along the way. But worst of all is the registered sex offender, played by Rob Corddry, whom Larry feels compelled to invite. He sits through the Seder as the episode’s Chekhov’s gun, pulled at exactly the right moment for one depraved beat. Because this list wouldn’t honor the chaotic magic of Passover if it didn’t end with an episode where Susie Essman screams her head off.