The Allure of Kim Kelly, the Best Friend Who Terrifies You and Shows You Who You Are


My best friend in college was scary as hell. She was a terror in platform Mary Janes, confrontational in all her qualities (from intelligence to wardrobe) and infamous for her wit, which she occasionally used to flay some quivering victim. Usually she felt bad afterwards, but she rarely apologized. At the same time, she was ferociously loyal and loving, the kind of friend who can read the tremor in your lip and ask precisely the question that gives you the chance to spit out all the capital-F Feelings you’re gnawing on. That friend who has the wisdom to just shut up when you have to ugly-cry for an entire hour—you know, the way you do when you’re 20 (or, it turns out, when you’re 30).

I first watched Freaks and Geeks all the way through for the first time in 2004, when Shout Factory released that now-iconic orange box set. (It was my first delirious fit of what we hadn’t yet named binge watching.) In the middle of the pilot episode, my heart seized with love and terror when Busy Phillips blew onto the screen as brash bad girl Kim Kelly. There she was: the riveting pugnacity in those glinting blue eyes, the mischievous, wide grin, the alarming suddenness with which those eyes narrowed and that grin fell away. And what’s more, I saw myself in the puppyish anxiety in our protagonist Lindsay’s (Linda Cardellini) shaky smile when Kim appears, and in her profound desire to have this terrifying, amazing hellion like her.

Kim Kelly was my best friend.

Maybe you’ve had a Kim Kelly. Maybe, whether you realize it or not, you’re someone else’s Kim Kelly: a friend who inspires some combination of fear, admiration, and deep, dizzying love. Every time you hang out, you wonder if she’ll decide you’re not cool enough, or tough enough, or whatever enough, and you’ll be left by the wayside. As you grow to know each other better, you realize that this isn’t just one-sided; a mutual anxiety of insufficiency is as fundamental an ingredient in this brew of feelings as respect. Kim Kelly is always your most challenging friend: you sometimes wish you could be like her, but you know you can’t. So who, then, should you be? Who can you be? This provocation to self-interrogation often makes the Kims of our lives—the friends we are slightly afraid of—the most important friends we have, especially in the tenuous, changeable teenage years that the show chronicles, as we figure out exactly how far we’re willing to be pushed, and how much we’ll push back.

Freaks and Geeks is all about this push and resistance. In this light, its single, perfect season looks like the love story, the weird and tentative one, of Kim and Lindsay. At first glance, they’re a stereotypically odd couple. Lindsay, a virgin who can barely drive, is an exemplary student from a loving suburban family, while Kim, the partying, sexually experienced girlfriend of charismatic alpha-Freak Daniel Desario (James Franco), lives with her cruelly judgmental mom and brutish stepfather on the wrong side of the tracks. Despite—or because of—this initial mismatch, the two develop an intimacy that’s often overshadowed by the flashier antics of the male-male or female-male relationships, but is actually the fragile, arrhythmically beating heart of the show.

Freaks and Geeks is not often read this way. A big part of the show’s cult mythos is its consecration as the cradle of life for Hollywood’s Age of Bromance. As Vanity Fair’s 2013 “Oral History of Freaks and Geeks grandiosely frames it, the show was “the wellspring of a dominant force in 21st-century comedy: the School of Apatow. Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco… got their start there.” And, at first glance, the show’s own distribution of screen time affirms this myth. Lindsay is initially our Dante to the hilarious, homely high school inferno of suburban Detroit in 1980, but the relationships we spend the most time with are those between the male characters (by turns, the Freaks or Geeks of the title) as she sidles uncomfortably between these groups. Lindsay’s transformation from a straight-A goody two shoes to stoner-adjacent faux-burnout offers the ostensible backbone of the show, but its body is a meandering investigation into the minute transitions that the show’s motley crew undergoes over the course of a school year. By nature of how many male characters the show has, we see these shifts more often through them. And, a number of their teenage anxieties are superficially and rather stereotypically gender-specific: “Girls are scary” is a recurring theme that plays out in both social groups.

But Freaks and Geeks offers more than a rehearsal of this tired teen trope. After all, girls aren’t only scary to the boys in the show. More interestingly and more importantly, they are scary to each other—and to themselves. It’s actually Kim and Lindsay’s friendship, their internal conflicts and anxieties, that open up the secret spaces of the two of them as characters, and of the show itself. Fittingly, their scenes happen alone, apart, aside—in Kim’s Gremlin, walking arm in arm out of earshot of the guys, hiding out from Kim’s angry parents and cheating boyfriend in Lindsay’s room. This is where the real, challenging work of the show happens. Faced with the high school religion of pious clique-worship, they are a kind of secretive and heretical Anti-Squad: irreconcilably different and independent, yet increasingly inseparable.

As such, Lindsay and Kim’s friendship is a mystified topic of speculation that’s not often witnessed outside of its own invisible walls. In a show that’s so much about what’s public, or what’s private being publicly processed, Kim and Lindsay’s space is framed as a retreat. This is clear from the their first real conversation, in Episode 4, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” They’re confined to the cramped quarters of Kim’s car, safe and claustrophobic, after narrowly escaping the clutches of Kim’s violent stepfather. In this enclosed space, shut away from the betraying world of bad parents and unfaithful boyfriends, Kim finally offers an honest account of herself: to stay afloat (primarily with Daniel, but also with her family, with everyone), “I’ve gotta stay alert, I’ve gotta be a bitch.” Lindsay, she admits tearfully, is her only friend, even if she is, “like, a total loser. No offense.”

Only friend, total loser: already, this feels like a pretty dramatic rewriting of Virginia Woolf’s Chloe and Olivia. For we see here that, while their relationship may demand a metaphorical—and often literal—room of its own, Kim and Lindsay aren’t sure if they like each other, or why. Their relation is one of mutual anxiety and affection; they both love and hate the other’s essential qualities. Kim is simultaneously resentful and proud of Lindsay’s golden girl image, while Lindsay is terrified of Kim (honestly, who wouldn’t be?) and at the same time, understands the defensive necessity of that barbed exterior.

Furthermore, the critical, divided feelings that each has for the other’s surface image somehow enable clearer visions of what lies beneath. Kim sees that Lindsay’s gilding of conventional accolades covers a fierce desire for individuality, while Lindsay is allowed to see the vulnerability just beneath Kim’s bitch-armor. There’s something challengingly productive about this doubled double-vision: in recognizing the hidden aspects of the other, each aggressively questions her own limitations (self-imposed or otherwise). Unlike the male characters, who slink away from their friends to try out possible other selves—like Daniel’s D&D triumph as “Carlos the Dwarf,” or the poignant hilarity that is Disco Nick—Lindsay and Kim directly force each other to see their own tentative and yet-unformed potentialities.

In so doing, Kim and Lindsay somehow activate each other’s burgeoning senses of self-perception and autonomy. The episodes where we see Lindsay push herself furthest are the ones in which Kim is her catalyst. For example, in “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” she explains to her befuddled mother and brother that Kim isn’t crazy, she’s opinionated (“Just because a girl speaks her mind doesn’t mean she’s a psycho”); seven episodes later, she herself acts on this claim, rhetorically gutting their English teacher in Kim’s defense (at Jack Kerouac’s expense), with a defiant boldness a pre-Kim Lindsay only dreamt of.

Similarly, Kim’s moments of self-interrogation and exposure are most often sparked by conflict with Lindsay. In “The Diary” and “Looks and Books,” Kim is deeply hurt and provoked by the perceived judgments Lindsay makes on her lifestyle and background, claiming that, “My life ain’t a lost cause, hers is”—and it’s this declaration that makes her start to wonder, tentatively, if she could aim higher. Kim’s vulnerability is something that Lindsay both activates and accesses more than anyone else; it’s the powerful and fundamental part of her character that makes her such a necessary element of Freaks and Geeks overall. As Daniel tells Lindsay in one of his more perceptive moments, “Kim’s like a body without skin.” Perhaps because of this, she lets both Lindsay and the show at large shed their own skins and engage bigger questions about class, gender, and female desire (sexual or otherwise). From early on, Kim and Lindsay’s volatile partnership is often the spark that sets these issues alight in the show’s other plotlines.

All said, how can we describe this central but often overshadowed relationship? In pop culture, companionship between women is so often framed as either sexual or sisterly. In the former version, female friends either nurse secret Sapphic longings, or in the tamer tradition of the bosom friend (à la Anne Shirley), the best friend is a placeholder for a future husband. The latter is built upon some notion of unifying, co-dependent sisterhood (Ya-Ya, Traveling Pants, the March Family’s actual sisters, et cetera). Kim and Lindsay occupy neither of these niches, nor are they each other’s missing pieces, thus also resisting the model of the girlfriend as soulmate and necessary complement—you know, the set types who fit together to form a faux-comprehensive picture of contemporary woman (think Sex and the City’s lady Rat Pack of moneyed Manhattan womanhood, or, Girls’ neo-Brat Pack of Brooklyn post-adolescence). Even as we identify at different times with one or the other (or both), we don’t really stop and wonder if we might pop-psychologize ourselves by claiming to be “a Lindsay” or “a Kim,” the same way the illusion that one might innately be “a Carrie” or “a Shoshanna” still has cultural traction.

They are not lovers, sisters, or soulmates—so what are they? The fact of the matter is, Kim and Lindsay don’t exactly need each other. Rather, they each unwittingly push the other to realize that she is herself a complete whole. This is an important kind of friendship, and one that feels somehow closer to life: less mythologized, less fetishized, less romanticized—and more real. It’s that scary, challenging thing I had with my college friend, and it’s the reason we can still pick up and act like not a day has passed, even if we haven’t seen each other for months. Ten years later, it’s more obvious to me that we didn’t cleave to each other; rather, we were catalysts of differentiation and autonomy, at times pushing and pummeling each other away, the way only the closest friends can.

But still: what do we call this kind of female friendship? The fictional trope that this process of self-discovery alongside another person most closely resembles is, somewhat unfortunately, actually the bromance: the idea that intimate heterosexual friendship can help both parties finally leave behind their man-childhoods and lay claim to who they really are (case in point: I Love You, Man). But why don’t we have a name for this relationship in women? More than the SATC idea that we are each other’s missing pieces, or the tired, soppy-sweet rhetoric of sisterhood, what Lindsay and Kim’s friendship shows us is how we learn from our actual friends—with whom we have ineradicable differences, from whom we are always somehow separate. The friends to whom we look when we need a second opinion, but whose opinion, once solicited, is always up for debate rather than devoted acceptance. While models of female friendship are often presented in ways that are undeniably infantilizing, Kim and Lindsay’s adolescent relationship starts to seem firmly, surprisingly, and uniquely adult.

And so it’s fitting that the show ends with Kim and Lindsay running off together, but for their own distinctly different reasons: Kim wants to escape the unfairly low expectations imposed on her by Daniel, her family, the town, while Lindsay pushes against the pressure of her family and her school’s high hopes. The final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” doesn’t attempt to conclusively wrap up any of the romantic storylines, nor does it cornily resolve any of the deep family troubles we’ve gotten deeply invested in over the course of the season. Does Kim end up with Daniel? Does Lindsay end up with Nick? Does Bill’s mom stay with Biff, and do Neil’s parents actually get divorced?

We can’t know these things, and in some ways, maybe we shouldn’t: the show is so much about determining via indeterminacy. In lieu of conclusions, we get the uncertain exhilaration of Kim and Lindsay, giddily disappearing beyond the show’s limited horizon. Nothing else is certain in this ending; we don’t know what will happen to the girls on their cross-country odyssey, or what will happen when they get back. But as fragile as this non-ending is, we’re still left with a peculiar sense of security. For in the end, they have each other for the time being, and more importantly, they have themselves. Freaks and Geeks’ final lesson of the school year is a subtle one, on how to work within and against pigeonholed identities, how to strike out on the path to adulthood—how to do this separately, but not alone.

This is a guest installment in Rachel Vorona Cote’s Fake Friends series.

Sarah Chihaya is an assistant professor in the Department of English at Princeton University, where she teaches contemporary fiction and film. She is also the editor of Contemporaries at Post45; her further thoughts on female friendship and fiction can be found there, in the co-authored series “The Slow Burn: A Summer of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels.”

Top image by Bobby Finger, source images via screengrab.

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