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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Freaks And Geeks: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend”

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“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 9/5/2000)

In which Lindsay and Kim Kelly become BFFs

(Available on Netflix)

When NBC picked up Freaks And Geeks, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” was just about the last thing the network expected to air. A dark, chaotic trip into the home life of one of the other characters, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is both one of the best episodes of the show and a necessary building block of the show’s ongoing plot. NBC wanted nothing to do with it. The episode, tonally, was unlike anything else the show had done to that point, and it was unlike just about anything else on the air. And there are places throughout where “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” tries to soften the blow, just a bit. Goofy music underscores some of the harder to watch scenes, and there are some tiny moments of connection and togetherness. But for the most part, this is a trip straight down, headed into the horrific underbelly of one of the characters who had been at once intimidating and a little frightening up until this point. NBC refused to air it, and the episode finally surfaced almost a year later on the Fox Family Channel.

What’s interesting is that “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is pretty clearly intended to take a character who could become a one-note villain and give her some notes of humanity. Up until this point, Kim has been rather one-dimensionally angry and sour, always taking out her emotions on Lindsay or Daniel, always stalking around like she owns McKinley High School. But Busy Philipps is capable of much more than intimidating everyone she comes in contact with, and by giving viewers a look into Kim’s home life, the episode suggests so much about who she is, who she’d like to be, and just how large the gap is between those two things. The script by Mike White is equal turns funny and poignant (not that you’d expect anything else), and Lesli Linka Glatter’s direction situations the viewer perfectly in the middle of the chaos Lindsay walks into.

There are three things this show does very well that are depicted beautifully here. The first is the shifting allegiances of being an adolescent, the way that trying on those new guises means not just that you might end up hanging out with a different clique but that you might end up hanging out with new people within that clique. The second is the ever-growing sense that Lindsay, much as she likes hanging out with the Freaks, doesn’t quite understand what she’s gotten herself into. The show very crucially doesn’t pass judgment on this. None of the Freaks are bad people, and Lindsay’s not in danger of losing her soul (or her future) from hanging out with them. But she carries many, many assumptions about the way life is from how she’s been raised, and hanging out with the Freaks quickly disabuses her of those notions. Finally, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” vividly depicts the way that going over to a friend’s house as a kid is sometimes a one-way ticket to realizing just how great a gulf exists between you and that person. Like Lindsay, we’re all accustomed to certain ways of living and certain ways of being, and it can be a shock to the system to realize that not everybody else is accustomed to the same things.

Let’s start with that first point, because one of the great things about “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is the way it lets the viewer be just as at-sea about Kim’s sudden shift in favor of Lindsay as she is. Abruptly, Kim starts treating Lindsay better, inviting her over for dinner, saying that, hey, if they’re going to be hanging out, they might as well like each other. The natural assumption is that Nick had something to do with this. He’s always trying to paper over the conflicts in the group. But White’s script pulls the rug out from under the audience and the protagonist: Kim only wants Lindsay over so she can become a part of Kim’s elaborate lie about how her new “smart” friend has been spending so much time with her and inviting her up to Benton Harbor to go water skiing. Kim’s just been using Lindsay all along anyway.

But these questions of allegiances pop up in the episode’s B-story, wherein Sam is bullied by Kim’s friend Karen (a young Rashida Jones, still looking older than a teenager) and subsequently grows sore over the idea that he’s a “pygmy geek,” that anyone could ever think he was geekier than Neal, who still plays with chemistry sets and does bad impressions, for God’s sake. (Neal points out that there are plenty of grown-ups who play with chemistry sets, and they’re called scientists.) The argument eventually grows physical, with Bill trying at all times to extricate himself from the situation, but it speaks to one of the show’s deeper truths about adolescence: Your friends are your best friends, until they stand in the way of you gaining greater social acceptance with others, and then they turn into your enemies. Fortunately, every other adolescent is in the same boat and understands that emotional betrayal is a daily occurrence and not to be taken all that seriously.


In the second point, this episode also underlines the way that bringing the Freaks into her life is something Lindsay just isn’t prepared for. For one thing, they’re always making fun of her little brother—he looks just like all the other geeks, Kim says—but it’s also clear from Lindsay’s visit to Kim’s house how little clue she has of what to expect when she gets there. One thing I like about the slow build of Freaks And Geeks is that we eventually get an idea of every non-Weir character’s home life, but the series starts here, and it’s like a kind of culture shock both for Lindsay and the audience. We’re not used to seeing this sort of family on TV. Everybody is openly argumentative, and an older brother sleeps off what might be a mental disorder, and the walls have been replaced by plastic sheeting. “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” doesn’t bother scaling any of this back. This is the world Kim grew up in, and suddenly, so many of her reactions start to make so much more sense. Look at the level of possession she has over her car—and Philipps is tremendous when she’s shouting “My car!” over and over—and you get a good sense of just how little Kim has ever had in this world, a marked contrast to the daughter of a guy who owns a successful sporting goods store and has a mom who stays home making veal piccata.

Hanging out with Kim also lets Lindsay get a better understanding of what being the girlfriend of a good looking, cool guy like Daniel would be like. Namely, it would be exhausting. Kim gets to watch as Daniel flirts with Karen, then tries to run the two over with her car, and she later tells Lindsay that she has to be a bitch, because if she gives an inch, then girls will be swarming all over her boyfriend. Daniel, like that car, is Kim’s, and she’s not going to let anybody else rip that away from her. Lindsay is smart enough to understand all of this intellectually, but she’s not really capable of processing it emotionally, because she’s been raised in such a different manner. The really smart thing about “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is that it turns Lindsay into a tourist in Kim’s life as surely as the audience is.


That’s the thing Lindsay is starting to realize, which brings me back to my third point. For her, being a Freak is a persona she’s trying on, and she’ll almost certainly shrug it off when she wants to get into a good college or gets tired of it. That’s what adolescents—well, upper middle-class adolescents—do, and Lindsay is nothing if not a typical upper middle-class adolescent, out exploring other options while she still has time to do so. But Kim doesn’t get to be a tourist. This is her life. This will always be her life. For the most part, kids grow up into versions of their parents, and it’s not hard to imagine a Kim Kelly who sounds like her mother, just as it’s not hard to imagine a Lindsay Weir who bears some of her mother’s innate kindness toward her own children’s troubled friends. But that’s the thing. The kindness that Lindsay’s parents display toward Kim is a kind of privilege. They’re comfortable. They get to sit on the couch and watch the best episode of Barney Miller and eat ice cream. They don’t really have to worry. Kim and her family have to worry about every single thing every single day, and that becomes a box that eventually crowds out those sorts of basic kindnesses unless you’re eternally vigilant. It’s obvious from our brief visit to Kim’s home that this family stopped with that long ago. Even when Kim and her mother are being civil toward each other, the conversation is laced with passive-aggressive putdowns.

In that final act, though, Kim gets to be a tourist, too, as the Freaks finally invade Lindsay’s home life, bringing her parents into contact with the kids she’s been hanging out with. On some shows, this would be a moment when Lindsay gets read the riot act, and her parents are obviously concerned about these new friends of hers. But it’s also clear they have some degree of respect for their daughter and are willing to let her make a few bad choices, so long as she doesn’t jeopardize everything. (Being a parent of an adolescent must be like a war of attrition.) Jean and Harold feel some concern about Kim, and they both clearly want to help her out or let Nick take all of their fruit snacks, but they also don’t know quite what to do. This girl might as well be an alien, beamed into their lives, someone they know is theoretically possible, but someone with whom they have very little actual experience.


That’s one of the things about high school: It’s one of the few places that forces all kinds of people to be in the same place at the same time. (Well, public high school, that is.) When Lindsay graduates from college and goes on to whatever bright career she might have, she’s going to encounter people like Kim Kelly very rarely, and she might be as slightly stunned by the appearance of such a fierce, intimidating girl as her parents are. Her life will be one largely filled with people very like herself, just as so much of our lives are spent around people who share roughly the same goals and socioeconomic bracket as ourselves. Kim is a reminder to both Lindsay and her parents that not everybody lives like them, even though their social circles and work circles and their television set suggest that’s the case. Think about this: How many times have you seen someone like Kim Kelly on TV?

All of which brings us back to NBC and not wanting to show this episode. On the surface, it makes sense. This is a dark, despairing howl of lower class America in places, and though White’s script leavens this with jokes, these are the sorts of people that just don’t get shown on your TV set all that often. To remind the audience of this show, no matter how small, that these sorts of situations exist all around them, every day, in this country was easy to read as an act of deliberate provocation on the part of the show’s producers, even if they had no particular desire to provoke. Those of us who live relatively comfortable lives spend far too much time creating spheres where we don’t really have to think about the Kim Kellys of the world, even though we theoretically know they exist. It’s a pity that in the last 20 years the television has become one of those spheres.


Stray observations:

  • The Geeks plotline is scant to the point of non-existence—the essay Sam has to write to apologize for defacing his locker is basically just there so he has something to do—but I do like the moment where Sam and Neal spill the acidic solution Neal was working on, and it begins hissing on the floor. “Cover your flesh! Cover your flesh!” Bill screams, and he begins tucking his arms inside of his short-sleeve T-shirt.
  • It’s really fun to watch Nick in this show and wonder if he’s smoked a joint before entering scenes. It seems pretty clear he’s high when he goes over to the Weir household (look at all those fruit snacks!), and the thought of Harold dealing with this high teenager rambling on about how he bought a basketball at Harold’s store a few years back and it still works is hilarious.
  • Lindsay and Kim’s story about Benton Harbor is punctured by one very simple question from Kim’s mom, who knows the area: What street is the Weir cabin on? (“Benton Harbor… Street?” Lindsay helpfully offers.)
  • There are few things on this Earth funnier than Millie saying the word “fornicate.”
  • White also pops up in this episode as Kim’s older brother, sleeping off whatever happened when he was hit in the head. White would go on to a successful career as writer for screen and TV, and his recent Enlightened is a show all fans of this show should check out. Glatter has become one of the most in-demand directors of serialized TV, and her work on Mad Men is particularly great.
  • I like how uncool the Freaks are, as evidenced by Karen’s Journey T-shirt. They’re not especially hip; they’re just hipper than Lindsay’s old mathlete buddies.
  • Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the show and tell embarrassing stories from our adolescence. This week: Visits to friend’s houses!) When I was a teenager, I was kind of annoying like Daniel, in that I would just wander into people’s houses if I thought I knew them well enough and if I was friends with one of their kids. I grew up in a small enough town that this was possible, and most of the time, my friends’ parents didn’t bat an eye. One time, however, I walked into one of my friend’s houses after 9 p.m. or so, because I was bored by driving endless loops on Main Street in my car and wanted somebody to hang out with me. (If memory serves, it was summer, so many of my friends were away on vacation or at camp or out working.) For whatever reason, I didn’t bother announcing myself, so I wandered right into the only room with lights on, the living room, where I promptly saw my friend’s dad, shirtless, beginning the process of undressing his wife on their couch. (I didn’t see anything. Thank God.) God knows why I did this, but I said, “Hello!” instead of backing away as quietly as possible (something I likely could have done), then had an extremely awkward conversation with them about where their kid was. (I hope I’ve obscured enough details that their identities won’t be known, but God knows somebody in my hometown will figure this out. I really should have done this section in unbreakable cipher.)

Next week: Daniel gets Lindsay to embrace cheating, and Sam starts sex ed in “Tests And Breasts.”