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Where Would Pop Culture Be Without Freaks and Geeks?

on September 28, 2019, 11:00am
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Jason Segel

“Nick Andopolis”

Jason Segel in Freaks and Geeks (NBC)

Jason Segel in Freaks and Geeks (NBC)

Here’s where the ripple effects start to get … ripply.

Jason Segel not only has enough star power for us to start yanking whole movies off the board — I love you, I Love You, Man, I have pretty mixed feelings about you The End of the Tour — but as a writer and director, his reach is even greater. Let’s start with Segel’s breakout hit: Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Gone. Finito. And with it vanishes that brief period during which Russell Brand was a thing. In regards to him, this absence is at worst a value neutral proposition. Still, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a great original comedy, and the loss of any great original comedy is something to be mourned.

We also lose the films The Five-Year Engagement and Sex Tape, both of which Segel wrote, in addition to the upcoming anthology series Dispatches from Elsewhere. Remember when Segel almost single-handedly rebooted The Muppets resulting in a movie that was, like, mostly fine? That’s gone, too. The Muppets still get rebooted, but maybe they just skip straight to The Muppets, the little-loved 2016 single cam dud. Given the state of reboot culture, I am not hopeful that someone other than Segel could have done better.

Jason Segel with Muppets, photo by Andrew McPherson

Jason Segel with Muppets, photo by Andrew McPherson

Now, what about How I Met Your Mother? Following our previously established formula, the show still happens, but without Segel’s excellent performance as Marshall, the show falters. It lasts only three seasons. Ironically, this ends up giving it a much better ending. However, it also means that we lose something far more dear: adult Neil Patrick Harris. Without the How I Met Your Mother mega-launching pad, Harris is sidelined to Broadway and his occasional cameos in the Harold and Kumar films. He tries to tell people about how much he loves magic tricks, but absolutely no one cares.

Sans Harris, American culture is a little bit more drab, more depressing, and greatly lacking in whimsy. The Netflix reboot of A Series of Unfortunate Events? Never happens. And it isn’t just Harris: Cobie Smulder suffers, Josh Rador suffers, Alyson Hannigan never gets a chance to move beyond Willow Rosenberg. It’s all just a mess.

What We Lose: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, I Love You, Man, The End of the Tour, The Five-Year Engagement, Sex Tape, Dispatches from Elsewhere, The Muppets, Six Seasons (and one terrible ending) of How I Met Your Mother, adult Neil Patrick Harris, post-Willow Alyson Hannigan, a lot of the Cobie Smulders, the entirety of Josh Radnor.

James Franco

“Daniel Desario”

James Franco in Freaks and Geeks

James Franco in Freaks and Geeks, NBC

On the other hand, “just a mess” also kind of describes James Franco’s career, so sussing out the impact of his absence is a bit trickier.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. That James Dean TV biopic he made soon after Freaks and Geeks was cancelled? Doesn’t happen. And let’s say that half the awful, forgettable films he made in the oughts are gone too: No Flyboys, no Tristan + Isolde, no Annapolis. On the other hand, the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films would have gone on without him, and … they might have been better? His performances as Harry Osborne in those movies causes some kind of distortion wave that interrupts my critical faculties. He was neither good nor bad, he simply was.

Meanwhile, all of Franco’s, uh, extracurricular pursuits don’t happen either. No book of short stories, no short films, no poetry, no art installations, nothing. America is spared the overwhelming McSweeneys-ness of it all. Did you know that James Franco starred alongside Chris O’Dowd in a stage production of Of Mice and Men? Apparently, he has a band? Of course he does. Jesus Christ.

There are some good films that suffer. Milk is worse for not having him in it, as is 127 Hours. But given the rest of the star power involved in those films (behind the camera, in the case of 127 Hours), they still happen. Franco’s latter day, hyper masculine literary obsessions mean that flicks like Howl and Child of God and The Sound and the Fury don’t happen. That’s probably good. But The Disaster Artist never gets made either, and Tommy Wiseau remains a truly cult figure. That’s probably worse for him, but I can’t figure out if it’s better or worse for the rest of us.

But here’s a thought to keep you up at night: Franco’s performance in A24’s early hit Springbreakers was widely lauded and fairly crucial to the film’s success. Without him, would A24 — possibly the most respected outfit in modern cinema — still be around? For the sake of this exercise, let’s say no. This outcome is truly haunting.

James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox

James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox

What about the recent Planet of the Apes franchise reboot, a trilogy of films that had absolutely no business being so good. Do they exist without Franco’s starring role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Let’s say yes. That’s right: I have taken away A24, but I have allowed you to keep Planet of the Apes. There is a cruel irony to this that best belongs in a black-and-white James Franco original short.

One person who 100% comes out of this better of is Anne Hathaway. Without Franco serving as her surly, disinterested co-host during the 2011 Oscars, Hathway does not try to save the evening single-handedly, provoking a (wildly unfair) wave of disgust at her try-hard antics. Maybe this means that Hathaway doesn’t end up close-up sing-crying her way to Oscar gold. Maybe it means she ascends to an even greater level of stardom than she has already achieved, towering above it all like her kaiju counterpart in Colossal. Whatever the consequences, Hathaway still gets to skip getting embarrassed by a grade-A doof live on national TV.

On the other hand, we also lose Dave Franco, who is a damn treasure.

What We Lose: A24, The Disaster Artist, Dave Franco, James Dean (the TV movie), Flyboys, Tristan + Isolde, Annapolis, movie versions of Howl and Child of God and The Sound and the Fury, a whole bunch of artsy bullshit, Anne Hathaway to kick around anymore.

Paul Feig


paul feig zoeys extraordinary playlist NBC

Paul Feig by David Dettmann

It’s difficult to pinpoint Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig’s biggest contribution to modern pop culture, but I think it might just be Melissa McCarthy.

Fans of Gilmore Girls and Mike and Molly might object, but the fact remains that McCarthy’s Oscar-freaking-nominated performance in Bridesmaids, directed by Feig, took her from sleeper TV actress to mega-Hollywood star. No Paul Feig, no Bridesmaids, no breakout performance. Perhaps McCarthy would have gotten there on her own, but you can’t deny that roles like that one are very hard to come by, and Feig’s one of the few writers and directors who can make them happen. Without Paul Feig, there would be fewer roles for women in Hollywood, period — but, especially, there would be far fewer funny ones.

No Melissa McCarthy means no Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer. It also means no SNL trying to recreate Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer through an increasingly desperate series of celebrity stunt castings to the detriment of its non-Kate McKinnon core cast. Speaking of SNL, does Kristen Wiig make the jump to movies without Bridesmaids — or rather, does she make the jump so successfully? Without Feig, Wiig would still eventually leave SNL, but it might be into the sorts of low-grade comedy oblivion that swallows up so many ex-cast members. Drunk History, here comes Kristen!

Aside from the fact that we also wouldn’t get The Heat or Spy or A Simple Favor. We also wouldn’t get Ghostbusters. And let’s talk about that. Here’s the thing about Ghostbusters: It was pretty good! Not awful. Not great. Pretty. Good. Unfortunately, the movie was sunk by a Howard Schultz-esque no-man’s-land position in the modern culture wars. The unwashed Gamergate hordes objected to the film’s all-female cast, while the woke-ish crowd objected to the film’s tin-eared approach to racial stereotypes regarding Leslie Jones’ character. With no champions and a million detractors — the film sank like a stone.

And yet, that stone was one of several that paved the way from Gamergate to the 2016 election and beyond — possibly dead-ending next week with Todd Phillips’ Joker. I’m not saying that Feig unwittingly helped Donald Trump get elected President of the United States … but I’m not not saying that either. The power of Freaks and Geeks works in mysterious ways.

What We Lose: Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, The Heat, Spy, A Simple Favor, celebrities doing bad political impersonations on SNL, Kristen Wiig’s post-SNL career, possibly President Donald Trump?

Seth Rogen

“Ken Miller”

Seth Rogan in Freaks and Geeks

Seth Rogan in Freaks and Geeks, NBC

Originally, Judd Apatow was on this list. And trying to imagine modern pop culture without the existence of Judd Apatow is some real alternate-history-level stuff. His fingerprints are everywhere: Anchorman, Funny or Die, Lena Dunham, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. This isn’t “What if the South had won The Civil War?” This is “What if the South had won The Civil War by inventing the atomic bomb and blowing up New York City?”

But upon further review, Apatow’s extensive pre-Freaks and Geeks resume — including co-creating The Ben Stiller Show and a long stint on The Larry Sanders Show — meant that I couldn’t build the case. Without Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow would still be very much a going concern …

But without Freaks and Geeks, Apatow wouldn’t have Seth Rogen. And that matters. Not only has Rogen been perhaps the single most important factor in Apatow’s industry-defining rise, but Rogen’s also been a vital and distinctive voice all his own. Losing Seth Rogen doesn’t just matter — it hurts.

The pair’s immediate post-Freaks project, Undeclared, still happens, and its fate remains the same: Cancelled after 18 episodes. But it isn’t as fondly remembered without Rogen, and the careers of Jay Baruchel and Charlie Hunnam take a hit. Instead of Hunnam, Boyd Holbrook gets cast as Jax in Sons of Anarchy, beginning an ascent to Hollywood A-lister status. He is Guy Ritchie’s extremely-Guy-Ritchie-esque King Arthur. He farts around inside a giant robot for Guillermo del Toro. Meanwhile, Hunnam’s big break doesn’t come until his casting on Narcos. The show succeeds, despite the fact that he doesn’t do much with the role.

Seth Rogan in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Universal

Seth Rogan in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Universal

The 40-Year-Old Virgin still happens. Without Rogen, it’s not as good, but it’s still a massive hit. (Saints be praised, we don’t lose Steve Carell.) But Knocked Up is another matter. In all likelihood, Paul Rudd steps up into Rogen’s role, and the results are … mixed. Rudd is too much of a traditional leading man for the movie to work quite right, but it also doesn’t cause the backlash that eventually derailed Katherine Heigel’s career. The movie does fine. A hit, but not a smash.

Heigel, on the other hand, ascends. Eventually, she and Anne Hathaway star in a gender-flipped remake of Some Like it Hot that replaces Bridesmaids as the female-driven comedy smash of the decade. Hathaway wins an Oscar. Everyone’s so happy. Good for her.

Here’s where the losses start to pile up: No Seth Rogen means no Superbad. No Superbad means no Jonah Hill, movie star. Leading men from Leonardo Dicaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) to Brad Pitt (Moneyball) sense a glitch in the Matrix as their number-one wingman is reduced to also-ran status. 21 Jump Street happens, but without Hill it doesn’t take off. Despite Magic Mike, Channing Tatum eventually goes the way of Josh Hartnett.

And without 21 Jump Street, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller don’t become hot, in-demand directors. Maybe they flourish in TV, but we still lose The Lego Movie movie franchise and — brace yourself — possibly Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as well. (On the flipside: Maybe Solo is better off?) This is difficult to pinpoint, but Emma Stone stood out something fierce in Superbad. Without it, does her career trajectory change? Probably not.

Jonah Hill in Superbad, Columbia Pictures

Jonah Hill in Superbad, Columbia Pictures

Just like no Superbad means no A-list Jonah Hill, no Pineapple Express means no Danny McBride and David Gordon Green. No Kenny Powers. No Vice Principals or Righteous Gemstones. No Walton Goggins, comedic genius. They still make another Halloween movie, but it’s godawful.

We lose all of the movies Seth Rogen’s wrote: Drillbit Taylor, The Green Hornet, The Watch, This Is the End, Sausage Party, and Neighbors 1 and 2. Some of those films will not be missed. But Neighbors helped people realize that Rose Byrne is hilarious and served as an important stepping stone for Zac Efron’s career from teeny bopper to grown-up movie star. What would happen to those two without it? Nothing good.

But all of those what-ifs pale in comparison to the ramifications of Rogen never writing, producing, and starring (alongside Franco) in The Interview. Because without The Interview, we do not get the Sony hack — allegedly perpetrated by North Korean Hackers in response to that film’s straight-up murdering Kim Jong-Un.

A direct result of the hack was that Studio Chief Amy Pascal stepped down over racially insensitive comments she made in an exchange with producer Scott Rudin. Without the hack, it’s very likely that Pascal stays.

Another effect of the hack was leaked documents that exposed just how badly Sony had bungled the Spider-Man franchise — although the two Andrew Garfield films that resulted from their stewardship should have been evidence enough. That public airing painted a direct line to their deal with Marvel to include Spider-Man in the MCU. So, no Seth Rogen, no The Interview, no Sony Hack, no Tom Holland as Spider-Man. That’s just math.

Seth Rogan in The Interview, Columbia Pictures

Seth Rogan in The Interview, Columbia Pictures

Beyond Hollywood, it’s almost impossible to say how the Sony hack has affected overall relations between the US and North Korea, but as tensions have flared over the past couple years, it’s hard to deny that the hack represented a sort of flash point. Without The Interview, who knows where things between the two nations would stand.

While it’s hard to top “lasting ramifications on the relationship between the US and North Korea,” I do want to end this piece on a slightly different note. Without Freaks and Geeks, in a world that has Judd Apatow but has no Seth Rogen, I think that Apatow’s legacy and influence is not only lessened, but slightly less positive. Simply put: Seth Rogen might be the single best thing that Judd Apatow has given us.

As Rogen has matured, he’s moved away from making classic Apatow bro-fests. Starting with with Neighbors and Rose Byrne — Rogen has taken the opportunity to create equally funny roles for his female characters. And look at him lending his star power to a movie like Longshot, which afforded Charlize Theron equal comedic airtime. On the whole, Rogen has gone from a very funny guy to a very funny guy who is also a force for actual good.

What We Lose: Too much.

Picture a world with no Superbad, no A24, no Melissa McCarthy, or Lord and Miller, or Neil Patrick Harris. That’s a world without Freaks and Geeks, my friends. And, unless you’re Anne Hathaway, it is not a pretty one. Thankfully, it’s a world that none of us have to live in.

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