TV on the Radio: Listening to ‘Friends’

Despite the thriving cultural landscape of 1980s America and all it had to offer young families, I was raised in a household that paid very little attention to popular culture. My parents, both writers, were Park Slope Food Co-op devotees whose record collection featured the same Van Morrison and James Taylor albums that they had listened to in college. Blazing Saddles was considered a contemporary flick. I used Mavis Beacon on an old Macintosh and thought it was a video game, and it was not until 1997, sixteen years after MTV’s launch, that I saw a music video (Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, “I’ll Be Missing You”). Our television at home had a handle; a single dial controlled both the power and the volume.

This is not to say I was culturally deprived — after all, we lived only blocks from a library. I read my weight in books on a weekly basis, devouring everything from Little Women to Rubyfruit Jungle, which I discovered on the shelf of a relative and found too eye-popping not to steal. But when middle school hit, so too did the realization that a vast knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s oeuvre had much less social mileage than recitations of Eminem lyrics or “South Park” jokes. In 1998, I learned that it was particularly socially disadvantageous to be ignorant of the Very Special Episode of UPN’s Moesha in which Mo, played by R&B singer Brandy Norwood, attends a Very Special Concert by her favorite R&B singer: Brandy Norwood.

Luckily, the end of the millennium brought great changes. In 1999, a generous and forward-thinking family friend gave me a most unusual birthday gift: a shower-compatible CD player/radio. This piece of innovative technology had four unique channels: AM, FM, CD, and TV.

I’ll say it again: TV.

I was hungry, so hungry, for television. I thought about it all the time. It was the key to social knowledge, it seemed. Cable was still a shimmering mirage, my lake in the desert, but with the shower radio I was crawling ever closer. At night, I would remove the radio from the bathroom and take it to bed, plugging in a pair of headphones as I yelled goodnight to my family and turned off the reading lamp. Alone in the dark, I listened to whatever was scheduled: Frasier, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, The Nanny; even, on occasion, the local news.

But the main event was, of course, Friends. An older, savvier cousin had turned me on to its existence some years prior, and it seemed fashionable, sexy, and most importantly, Adult. Specifically: New York City Adult. It was a vision of my hometown as I could only wish to know it. The Manhattan of Friends is not a Manhattan I will ever know — that city does not, in fact, exist — but for a few formative years it was everything. I quickly became addicted to the show’s fantasy; to the in-jokes, the neuroses, the romantic successes and sexual water-treading of characters whose physical properties I had only ever seen a handful of times. I listened to reruns five nights a week, and to supplement this audio diet I obsessively read full episodes on The Complete Friends Script Index, a collection of crowdsourced transcriptions. (It makes sense in a lot of ways; now in my twenties, I have no eye for clothing or makeup but will spend hours laboring over a sentence. Perhaps our best caricatures are our pasts.)

Sometime in high school, I stopped listening to television. Other things took hold: punk music, an interest in cooking, mechanical drawing homework that demanded a 2 A.M. bedtime. I’ve seen Friends only a few times since 2002, the year that I stopped listening. These viewings have happened exclusively on airplanes, in hotels, and in college dorm rooms late at night (re: the latter, it has admittedly been a while). I’m not sure I like watching Friends, to be honest. I find it hard to get through a full episode — it feels abrasive somehow, dated and oddly aspirational. What was once novel and illuminating now feels stale, hokey. But I think a lot about that process of discovery; of investing heavily in a cultural form while only having partial access, of allowing the medium to set its own terms. We live in a time where we can have almost every form of entertainment we want, when and wherever we want it (and in HD, if so desired). At this juncture, I don’t know that I would willingly settle for truncation. I worry that I no longer have the imagination to fill in all the blanks.

At a certain point the shower radio batteries ran out. I have yet to replace them.