[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Mike White | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 09/05/2000]
“Why was Freaks and Geeks cancelled?” I occasionally wonder to myself. “It was an awesome show. What could possibly have possessed the TV gods to pull the plug on it before it even finished a single season?”
The obvious answer to this question is “low ratings”. Hardly anyone was watching the series when it first aired, thanks to poor advertising and a Saturday-night timeslot. But that answer still doesn’t satisfy me. After all, NBC is a network known for giving its shows a fair chance, keeping series on the air despite initially poor viewership, and sometimes turning them into major hits. (Seinfeld being the most notable example.) So the executives’ reservations over Freaks and Geeks must go beyond simple Nielsens. They clearly had issues with the show itself. And nowhere is this more apparent than with “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” – an episode which the network actually refused to air.
In banning this episode, NBC strove to tone down Freaks and Geeks’ achingly realistic perspective. Their claims were that certain scenes in the episode – particularly those concerning Kim and her family – would be too intense for the average viewer to stomach. But by removing this episode from its natural place in the series, they removed an integral moment in the storyline’s progression, which may have led the few viewers who tuned in each week astray. Think about it: By immediately following “Tricks and Treats” [1×03] with “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], fans saw Kim Kelly undergo a seemingly abrupt and out-of-character change from foe to friend. How could the show’s writers make such a slip-up? Kim’s character development in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” make the episode extremely crucial. And, more importantly, extremely awesome.
During the first three episodes, we know relatively little about Kim, other than the fact that she seems to despise Lindsay. That trait carries over into the beginning of this episode, as her verbal barbs and rudeness drive Lindsay away from the freaks’ lunch table. Lindsay has been getting along fine with Daniel, Nick, and Ken, but nothing she does seems to please Kim.
That all changes quickly enough, as Kim soon starts acting friendlier around Lindsay. Lindsay is relieved at this, convinced that she’s finally made an impression on Kim, and agrees to start hanging out with her. We are given a nice bit of character detail from Lindsay’s perspective. When Millie cautions her about befriending Kim, Lindsay brushes off her worries. “We can’t all be Girl Scouts, Millie,” she says. When Sam later labels Kim a “psycho”, Lindsay comes to her defense: “She’s just different. She doesn’t wear frilly dresses or prance around like a cheerleader. Just because a girl speaks her mind doesn’t mean she’s a psycho.” Here, the episode subtly paves a pathway into Lindsay’s mind. In defending Kim, Lindsay is subconsciously defending herself, trying to convince her own guilty conscience that there’s nothing wrong with her newly rebellious ways.
It’s clear from the way she speaks in this episode that Lindsay admires Kim. Kim represents the ultimate example of the girl Lindsay wants to be, if only her conscience weren’t holding her back: Tough, strong-willed, and not afraid to do anything. To Lindsay, Kim is the pure definition of rebellious. When Kim offers to be friends, Lindsay is thrilled, assuming that a friendship with Kim will supply her with a much cooler life.
Such hopes are dashed, however, when Lindsay meets Kim’s family. If Lindsay thought her own parents have been making her life difficult, she is shocked by the state of Kim’s home. Living in a ramshackle, underdeveloped house just steps away from being called a “shack”, Kim must contend with a resentfully uncouth mom, a grungy and illiterate dad, and a burned-out, possibly brain-damaged brother. The truth is revealed: Kim invited Lindsay to her house to show her parents that she is capable of befriending someone intelligent and in turn, keep them from selling her car.
Kim, we learn, had a close relationship with her now-deceased Aunt Kathy. It parallels Lindsay’s relationship with her grandmother, albeit with a darker tint. (Kim’s aunt died from a drug overdose.) Before Aunt Kathy died, she left Kim her Gremlin, which Kim now treasures. The car is the one thing in her life which she herself possesses, and she refuses to relinquish it. When Kim invites Lindsay over to meet her parents, she does not do so to gain their loving approval, but to keep them from taking away what’s hers.
In this manner, Lindsay is just Kim’s pawn, although it’s clear that Kim respects her enough to make her play the part of the “good girl” in her plan. Note that Kim doesn’t admire Lindsay. She simply sees her as a brainy girl for her to belittle most of the time, but whose skills can be of use whenever the need arises.
And as Lindsay quickly realizes, the need has definitely arisen. Kim’s parents are openly resentful of their daughter’s lifestyle. Lindsay learns this at the Kellys’ dinner table, where Kim’s plan to impress her mother falls through. Kim, as Lindsay has earlier pointed out, is no “girl scout”, so it’s not surprising that her parents would disapprove of her actions. However, Mr. and Mrs. Kelly are not just upset, but also spiteful and distrustful of her. It’s somewhat understandable that, living in a home like this, Kim turned out to be the nasty person she is.
The scenes in the Kelly household are disturbing and disturbingly relatable. Lindsay’s discomfort as watching Kim’s family arguing with one another is as painful as the argument itself. I’m sure many of us, at one time or another, have witnessed a friend of ours getting yelled at by their parents, while we could only stand nearby silently with a discomforting knot in our stomachs. Even if the argument and subsequent tussle between Kim and her parents feels over-the-top, it succeeds admirably, thanks to Lindsay’s fly-on-the-wall presence. I can genuinely feel Lindsay’s panic and concern as Kim’s father chases her out of the house and tries to grab the car keys away from her. The tension and suspense in this scene is at a level I’ve rarely seen matched. I genuinely feared for Lindsay’s life the first time I watched it, and the scene still leaves me breathless.
Having now abandoned her poor excuse for a home, Kim decides to seek comfort in Daniel. Unfortunately, Daniel is busy seeking comfort from Kim’s friend Karen. In one of my favorite moments of the episode, Kim attempts to run the two of them down with her car while screaming death threats at Daniel, as Van Halen music blares in the background. I can’t possibly say if the writers meant for the episode’s tone to be scary or funny, because there are too many moments when I’m both sitting on the edge of my seat and throwing myself back with laughter. I’ll let you figure out for yourself if that’s physically possible.
It’s Lindsay who offers consolation, and Kim accepts it. She pours out her heart to Lindsay, uttering the best line of the episode: “You’re like my only friend, Lindsay – and you’re a total loser!” By “friend”, Kim appears to mean “person who doesn’t hate her”. It’s clear from this why she turned to Lindsay, even if she didn’t respect her as an individual. This line expresses her crisis perfectly, and also acts as a smooth transition for the girls’ relationship – she stops thinking of Lindsay as a fair-weather friend, and begins to think of her as a genuine one.
Later, at the Weirs’ home, Kim addresses her problem with Daniel. “Why are guys only interested in sex?” she laments to Lindsay’s father in another one of the episode’s tragic-yet-hilarious moments. This is one of the episode’s greatest assets – it manages to derive humor out of even its most painful scenes.
Later, when Daniel shows up with an explanation for his actions, Kim at first refuses to hear him out, and she continues to yell at him, even as he continues to state that he didn’t do anything wrong. Is Daniel lying to Kim? Probably. The first scene in this episode shows him expressing an attraction to Karen, and knowing Daniel, it’s likely he’s followed up on it. By telling Kim that she’s the only one he cares about, Daniel is manipulating her back into a romantic relationship. And he succeeds, as the two of them are soon shown… making out on the Weirs’ kitchen counter.
(I think I’m starting to figure out why the network banned this episode.)
The moment where Kim and Daniel begin kissing could be described as the punch line to a shaggy-dog joke – it implies that Kim and Daniel, despite their reserves for each other, will never terminate their relationship. Yet after all the stress we’ve seen Kim go through in the episode, would any other ending suffice? Apart from her Gremlin, Kim has no material possessions to call her own, and so she can’t resist the opportunity to jump up and claim Daniel for herself.
Furthermore, this ending fits right in with the episode’s darkly comic tone. There’s never a moment in Kim Kelly’s storyline that isn’t achingly painful, and there’s never a moment that isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious. Skillfully weaving these genres together, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is one of the finest examples of why Freaks and Geeks encapsulates the title of “dramedy”.
Equally as skillful is the way the episode interweaves the freaks’ storyline of the episode with geeks’. Kim’s meanness is on display early in the episode, as she stands by laughing while Karen picks on Sam. Poor Sam is just learning how to handle himself against bullies, and along comes a female bully – one he can’t physically fight back against.
Unlike Alan, who picks on Sam because he doesn’t know how to befriend him, Karen looks at the “punishment” she gives Sam as a form of justice. She is set to explode at the start of the episode, and Sam’s locker mix-up is just the spark she needs. She stereotypes Sam as a “geek” because of his short size and lack of armpit hair. Sam has been branded with this title before, but this is the first time someone has used his physical appearance as proof to that effect, and the insult causes him to become insecure regarding his size.
Once again, Sam’s scenes in the episode hit me hard. Of particular note is the scene where he attempts to scribble the words “PYGMY GEEK” off his locker, only to be spotted and reprimanded by Mr. Kowchevski. In the “Pilot” [1×01], Kowchevski told Sam to “be a man” – in other words, he should stop running to adults with his problems and handle them on his own. Now, Kowchevski punishes Sam for attempting to do just that. Poor Sam. And screw you, Kowchevski.
Sam’s anger against Karen turns into anger against Neal, as he calls out his friend for failing to help him. Sam is distressed over his “geek” label, and it doesn’t help when Neal and, after some pressuring, Bill call him the biggest geek in the group. Sam’s pride is also stung when Neal calls him out for playing with his Tonka trucks, leading to a physical brawl. Later in the episode, we get a wistfully sad moment where Sam throws out his trucks. Try as he might, Sam is incapable of holding onto his childhood.
But thankfully, Sam’s conflict with Karen is resolved in a wonderfully tidy fashion, tying itself in with Kim’s storyline in the episode. In another darkly comedic scene, Kim resolves to fix Sam’s problem, albeit in a way that gives him more fear than comfort: “I’m gonna break her arms. And after I break her arms, I’m gonna take a wrench and I’m gonna pull out her teeth one by one. And after that, I’m gonna take a match, and I’m gonna set her hair on fire.”
(I am now fairly certain as to why the network chose to ban this episode.)
The story ends in perfectly bittersweet Freaks and Geeks fashion, with Kim giving Karen a taste of her own medicine. When Sam thanks her, she just smiles and replies, “No problem, geek.” And for the first time, Sam doesn’t mind that label.
As usual, several other characters receive their moments in the spotlight during this episode, and these moments are as wonderful as always. What’s especially spectacular is how well these bits are woven into the storyline – none of them feel shoehorned or out-of-place. Of note is Nick’s attempt to comfort Lindsay and the shoulder massage he gives her. Lindsay’s face expresses confusion and a hint of worry – by this point, she’s beginning to speculate if Nick sees her as just a friend, or if there’s something more to his nice-guy personality. We’re also introduced to Gordon, and this episode perfectly sets him up for future episodes. He’s depicted as little more than an overweight teenager, which is all the writers want us to think of him as before he begins developing in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” [1×08].
But ultimately, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is a story about – wouldn’t you know? – Kim Kelly. By the end of the episode, Kim’s character has become astonishingly well-developed. She is still a tough girl, and she still can’t stay away from Daniel. But through her family and friends, not to mention her relationship with Lindsay, our perspective of her has been radically altered. The episode tells her story with such smoothness and clarity that it never for a moment feels false or manipulative. It disarms the intensity of its scenes with a wonderful sense of humor which feels perfectly in tone with the story. I’ve seen a lot of shows inject humor into intensely serious scenarios, but few, if any of them, have done it this skillfully.
The brilliance of this episode becomes even more apparent once you realize just how delicate its structure is, what with all the hysteria Kim goes through. In lesser hands, the episode could have ended up as just a lot of mindless noise – an over-the-top story which screamed for attention. But writer Mike White and actress Busy Philips hit just the right note with Kim Kelly, endearing us to her even as she curses her parents and tries to mow her boyfriend down with dearly departed Aunt Kathy’s Gremlin.
“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is one of Freaks and Geeks’ finest offerings, both in terms of character and sheer entertainment. And the fact that it was banned from its original airing paints it as a microcosm for the series at large. Why, after all, was Freaks and Geeks cancelled? As this wonderful episode so perfectly answers, “It was too great for TV.”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Neal impersonating Rod Serling… of The Twilight Zone.
+ “Geek blood.” Ha! And, ew.
+ Kim mentioning that her parents wouldn’t dare call the cops on her because she has dirt on her father.
+ Harold “comforting” a sobbing Kim. “There, there,” indeed.
+ Nick asking Jean if he can have some Fruit Roll-Ups. I love Nick.
* This episode portrays the first signs of genuine apprehension from Lindsay’s parents that their daughter is beginning to drift away from the bright and upstanding girl they know. Their concerns are first stated here, will be touched upon in “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], and will be acted upon in “The Diary” [1×10].