I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Because I grew up in the Vermont woods with parents who basically forbade television, I’ve spent the last few decades obsessed with a Friends episode that slipped through the cracks back in 1995. My parents hoped that banning TV would prevent my sister and me from becoming mindless capitalists, and drive us towards more worthwhile pursuits (in their eyes, wandering the forest and finding a dead vole to poke at counted as a worthwhile pursuit). None of their intentions paid off. The only substantial effects of a TV-free childhood were that, as a kid, I had no freaking clue what any of the other kids were talking about, and, even now, if there is a television playing in a bar, I am propelled to stare at it continuously like an astonished simpleton.
Occasionally we were allowed to watch something educational as a treat, and so my earliest television memories involved Wishbone, Sesame Street, and, curiously, Friends. By the time Thursdays at 8:30 rolled around, my parents (the hypocrites!) were probably too tired to prevent me from watching what they were watching. Or maybe I was lurking behind the couch. Who knows. As a result, my early understanding of adulthood, love, and sexuality was experienced through the bizarre prism of the sitcom. The season one finale concerns an event that will be forever seared into my frontal cortex: Joey discovers cunnilingus, and is subsequently rewarded with an absurd amount of fruit baskets.
The episode follows a comfortably predictable formula – up to a point. In the main plot, Rachel learns that Ross, at that point rushing off to China for fossil business, is in love with her. No surprises there. In the B plot, Joey enrolls in a fertility study to make some cash, and is therefore not allowed to have sex. This complicates things with his girlfriend of the week, Melanie, the co-owner a fruit basket company called “The Three Basketeers.” So far, so relatable. Monica suggests that Joey satisfy Melanie in other ways, and Joey, disturbingly but true to type, doesn’t quite catch on. But in the cutaway, we see that Joey clearly figured out what Monica meant. He has blown Melanie’s mind into oblivion, and she announces her intention to give him a large fruit basket in the morning.
I saw this when I was nine. The fact that my first exposure to sexual specifics featured female pleasure is pretty radical, and the effects have been profound and far-ranging. To this day, I still hear Melanie’s voice pop into my head after a particularly thrilling sex encounter, burbling with uncontained joy: “Somebody’s going to get a GREAT BIG fruit basket!”
Back in the main story, Rachel heads to the airport to confront Ross, but just misses him. When we return to the subplot, things have taken a surreal turn. Joey and Chandler’s apartment is filled with dozens – dozens – of edible arrangements, presumably hand-crafted by Melanie in some sort of fugue, orgasm-wracked state.
Rewatching Friends as a youngish person in New York City raises some concerns. On top of rampant homophobic, transphobic, and fat-phobic jokes (the show is a cornucopia of phobias!), the friends in question are meant to represent semi-recent graduates struggling into adulthood, but their interactions suggest a different story. These are people who wander in and out of each other’s apartments, eat breakfast together on weekday mornings, deliver dialogue loudly and clearly as if to an invisible – but audibly laughing – audience. They hardly drink, they don’t use drugs, and they never swear. The men wear their biggest sleep shirts during the day. The overall impression is that the Friends are actually retirees in assisted living.
As someone who grew up watching squirrels mate in a tree for entertainment, I am confused about how to read Friends, and I tend to drift between two modes of interpretation. One is that “relatability” was simply not something TV strived for in the 90s, and that Friends was sort of a slipstream simulacrum of friendship and city living: A broadcast straight from the uncanny valley. The other interpretation is that it actually does faithfully reflect the way twenty- and thirty-somethings behaved in the 90s, which seems preposterous. People really had best friends in their apartment buildings and hung out with them at all hours of the day. Huh.
In any case, I think about those fruit baskets all the damn time. Why would a woman fill her partner’s home with handmade fruit baskets? Wouldn’t that have taken hours of her life? What transpired between Joey not understanding the concept of cunnilingus and Joey rendering Melanie catatonic with bliss in the very next scene? Did a high-energy training montage get left on the cutting room floor? What exactly were the parameters of the giftbasket/orgasm economy? Was Joey expected to eat them all? If Melanie’s fruit wasn’t meant for consumption, and was rather a symbol of her gratitude, then wasn’t the gesture – like Chandler’s work shirts – somewhat outsized?
But that’s just it! In my youth I believed this episode to be a depiction of male generosity. Now I realize that I was witnessing for the first time something I’d see with infuriating regularity throughout life: a man being disproportionately celebrated for something he should be expected to do anyway. I don’t know why it took me until now to recognize this. Perhaps I’m achieving erotic maturity, or perhaps I’m becoming ever more aware of the pervasiveness of sexual double standards. Joey does a normal sex act and gets showered with accolades and grapes like a Dionysus of the West Village? Please.
There is, however, one last possible way to interpret the episode, which assumes that Friends does exist in its own realm, alongside our reality but untethered from our laws of time, space, and physics. In this universe, Joey Tribbiani has such preternatural skills in the art of oral pleasure that he genuinely did earn all of those gift baskets. His abilities are in fact worth every last one of Melanie’s melons. And if all of this is true, then I have an edible arrangement he can come sample any time.