“You’re traveling through another history, a history not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, Alternate History X.”
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Freaks and Geeks, the ultimate short-lived cult TV show. As a chronicle of teenage suburban misery in the early 1980s, Paul Feig’s program only lasted 18 episodes, but it still casts a tremendously long shadow. Not only did its intelligent, adept mixture of comedy and drama presage the kinds of prestigious, high-toned shows that would come to dominate the next two decades — but the show’s cast was absolutely stacked.
Between Feig and cast members like Seth Rogen, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, and Busy Phillips, Freaks and Geeks has had an undeniable impact on pop culture in the 19 years since it went off the air. Measuring that impact can be a little bit tricky, so instead, I decided to measure its hypothetical absence: How would pop culture be different if Freaks and Geeks had never existed?
For the purposes of a clean experiment, I’m imagining a kind of localized Y2K rapture that snaps creator Paul Feig and the show’s primary teenage cast members out of existence starting in 1999. With that in mind, let’s start at the least impactful cast member and work our way up to the top. And If you disagree with anything contained in this article, I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules. This is science.
Of all the Freaks and Geeks cast members, Sam Levine has had the least impactful post-show career. Don’t get me wrong, he has become a grade-A “that guy” actor, popping up steadily in shows and movies to the tune of 120 total IMDB credits, but it might be most accurate to describe Levine’s low-grade level of fame “the Drunk History zone” — a show that he has appeared on three times.
The problem for Levine is that he’s totally replaceable, so his disappearance from the pop-cultural landscape wouldn’t actually alter the trajectory of any films or TV shows. Still, I posit that it would have a slightly positive effect for one other actor in particular: David Krumholtz aka Charlie from Numb3s aka Joseph Gordon Levitt’s friend/co-conspirator in 10 Things I Hate About You aka Mr Universe from Serenity. As another Jewish, wise-cracking “that guy,” Krumholtz would be in a perfect position to fill in many of Levine’s roles were he off the map.
What We Lose: Nothing, but David Krumholtz makes out like a bandit.
It pains me to put Martin Starr this low, as I quietly murmur “yay!” whenever he shows up on screen in some random supporting role. Starr’s come a long way from his portrayal of the deeply awkward anti-Fonz Bill Haverchuck. He now is a reliable deadpan, smarter-than-thou asshole, as evidenced by his wonderful turn as deadpan, smarter-than-thou asshole Gilfoyle on Silicon Valley (although personally, I enjoyed his performance as the deadpan, smarter-than-thou asshole Roman DeBeers on Party Down even more). He’s even showed off some greater range in the two Tom Holland Spider-Man flicks as Peter Parker’s still-deadpan-but-not-smart-and-also-not-an-asshole teacher, Mr. Harrington.
Sadly, like Levine, wiping Starr off the face of the earth (via some sort of … “Starr-Wipe”) wouldn’t cause too many ripples … unless you truly believe in the delicate power of ensembles. Silicon Valley and Party Down are both shows with absolutely loaded casts and their charms often lie in the intricate, back-and-forth interplay between co-stars.
Would ripping Starr out from either show mean that the show would no longer exist? Probably not … but it could also subtly alter cast chemistry so that neither show ascended to their current heights — or in Party Down’s case, its ironclad cult status. Without Starr, maybe Silicon Valley has a solid run but calls it quits after five seasons, or even four.
What We Lose: 2-3 seasons of Silicon Valley, assorted cherished memories of Party Down.
Following her performance as one of TV’s greatest surly teens, Linda Cardellini has embarked on the classic TV actor career: She can score headlining roles on the small screen, but is mostly reduced to smaller roles in the multiplex. Cardellini’s biggest film roles came as Velma in 2002’s Scooby Doo and 2004’s Scooby-Doo: Monsters Unleashed (neither of which features the Harlem Globetrotters, making them decidedly not canon). If you remember that she also played Hawkeye’s wife in the Avengers films, please seek help. You’re in too deep.
On TV, however, Cardellini co-starred in Bloodline as Meg Rayburn and, most recently, as Jude Hale in the delightful, black-hearted Netflix show Dead to Me. So if she had vanished in 1999, it’s safe to say that Dead to Me is off the table. And you know what? Let’s kill off Bloodline too — and then spend a long time freaking out about it on or near a boat, as the show would have wanted. But here’s the sticky bit … ER.
From 2003 to 2009, Cardellini co-starred on the long-running medical drama as nurse Sam Taggart. If there was ever a show that functioned as remorseless, actor-proof machine it was … well, okay, it was Law & Order … followed by literally every successful daytime soap opera, but ER is totally in the mix! The show had George Clooney and then lost George Clooney and then ran for another 10 damn seasons! It would be kind of absurd to say that without Linda freaking Cardellini you wouldn’t get the final 10 seasons ER…
…but then again, the butterfly effect is a helluva thing. Who am I to say that Cardellini wasn’t actually the secret linchpin that held the entire thing together. Let’s split the difference: Without Cardellini, the show stays on the air but things get … desperate … and then they get weird. Now, things on ER did, in real life, get a little weird towards the end. Let us not forget the ballad of Dr. Robert Romano, crushed to death by a falling helicopter.
But without Cardellini, what if they show took an even crazier turn into the supernatural? Psychic nurses wrenching spirits from the astral plane and jamming them back into flat-lining bodies, thirsty vampires stalking the blood storage units (aka that one episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?), Lovecraftian death-cult members coming in because their skin got turned inside out during a ritual, the whole nine yards.
It’s a hypothetical fact that Linda Cardellini’s down-to-earth, no-nonsense aura was the only thing standing between ER and a much higher budget version of Garth Merenghi’s Dark Place. Remember, that show was created was by Michael Crichtion, who once wrote a novel about super-smart murder gorillas. Prove me wrong.
What We Lose: Dead to Me, Bloodline, ER-with-vampires
You could argue that Busy Philipps should be higher on this list, and I wouldn’t blame you. She ended up ranking in the bottom half because what we would lose without her is a bit more ephemeral. While Philipps has had a more than respectable career in television, often in supporting parts, she has been an absolutely A+ celebrity. She’s funny, witty, outspoken — and also deeply affecting in her advocacy for equality and women’s rights. Losing her as a celebrity would hurt far more than losing her 2005 show, Love, Inc.
But then there’s Cougar Town. I’m not going to argue that Cougar Town wouldn’t have happened without Philipps. For that, we’d have to be dusting Courtney Cox along with the entire cast of Friends. (Side note: This would have a much smaller effect on the pop-cultural landscape than dusting the cast of Freaks and Geeks. Think about it.) Similar to Martin Starr and Silicon Valley, though, I think not having Philipps in the cast would have dramatically affected that show’s boozy chemistry for the worse — like a glass of red wine getting watered down by ice cubes.
I’m calling it: Without Philipps, the show doesn’t last beyond two seasons. And for good measure, we’ll also say that it doesn’t develop that weird sister-show relationship with Community, losing us both Abed’s delightful cameo and the god-level Community episode “Critical Film Studies”.
What We Lose: Busy Phillips the celebrity, her short-lived talk show Busy Tonight, four seasons of Cougar Town, one episode of Community.
John Francis Daley
“Really?!” you’re saying to yourself, “Freaking Sweets is ranking higher than Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips?!” Calm down, straw person, and let me explain. Yes, it’s true that John Francis Daley is best known post-Freaks and Geeks for the many years he spent glued to David Boreanaz’s side as the quirky FBI Agent Lance Sweets on Bones. (I apologize for referring to him as “quirky” — literally everyone on that show is “quirky.”) But here’s the thing you might not know about Daley: The biggest impact he’s made in the two decades since moving on from Sam Weir hasn’t been as an actor; it’s been as a writer and director.
Without Daley, the following films do not exist: Horrible Bosses, Horrible Bosses 2, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and the Ed Helms-starring reboot of Vacation. These are all films that Daley wrote or, in the case of Vacation, wrote and directed. (He also wrote Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, but I’m willing to concede that a sequel to the first film would have happened with or without him.) (He also didn’t actually write Horrible Bosses 2, but he gets a story credit, and, obviously, that sequel wouldn’t exist without the original.)
Now, with the possible exception of the first Horrible Bosses, I think it’s safe to say that few people would be broken up about none of these films existing. However, Daley also directed last year’s surprise sleeper hit Game Night. You remember that flick, right? It came out of nowhere and was surprisingly good! It was a solid, non-franchise-adjacent, adult-oriented comedy! While its reputation is slightly inflated due to the sheer novelty of this film a) existing, and b) being pretty dang good, Game Night would undoubtedly be missed.
And then there’s Spider-Man. You see, Daley co-wrote Spider-Man: Homecoming, but trying to figure out his level of responsibility for the finished product is pretty near impossible because Marvel is truly an entertainment-industrial complex unto itself. So long as Kevin Feige and Robert Downey Jr. are still there, these movies are pretty much turning out the same. And with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the same goes for Tom Holland.
And yet … that film managed to improve upon the basic Marvel formula in so many ways: Its neighborhood-level stakes, its complex and enjoyable villain, even its banter was at least a good 25% better than normal. Frankly speaking, the Peter-Vulture car scene is one of the best written MCU scenes, period. Given how the Hulk-like strength of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s script contributed to the finished product — underscored by the comparatively weaker, non-Daley credited script to Spider-Man: Far from Home — I’m willing to give Daley at least partial credit.
Let’s go with 20%. Without Freaks and Geeks’ John Francis Daley, Spider-Man: Homecoming would be 20% worse. If you walked out of that film with a bounce in your step, that bounce now has only 4/5ths of its previous elasticity. You feel like you’ve been deprived of … something. You just can’t tell what.
What We Lose: Game Night, Horrible Bosses 1 and 2, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Vacation, 20% of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.