Get your freak on: `Geeks' is on DVD

April 06, 2004|By Sarah Kickler Kelber | Sarah Kickler Kelber,SUN STAFF

A geeky 14-year-old boy walks the object of his crush onto the dance floor to the strains of Styx's "Come Sail Away," only to have his long-awaited slow dance turn into a fast dance when the song's tempo suddenly changes.

Would the scene really have worked with music from a generic piano track?

Not for the makers of Freaks and Geeks, the critically acclaimed television series that was canceled in 2000 after being shuffled around and periodically pulled from the NBC schedule. Nor for Shout Factory, the company that agreed to take on the challenge of putting the series out on DVD. (Freaks and Geeks - The Complete Series comes out today.)

The show, which debuted in 1999 and ran for only 18 episodes, follows brother and sister Sam (John Francis Daley) and Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a geeky freshman and brain-turning-"freak" junior, at McKinley High School in 1980 Michigan.

Series creator Paul Feig based the show on his own experiences growing up in Michigan.

"Sam is who I was at the time, and Lindsay is who I became," said Feig. "Writing the pilot, I decided to have a girl who is questioning everything, who used to be a straight-A student, a good girl, who's decided to `go to the other side.'"

The death of Lindsay's grandmother is the catalyst for her change from a champion "mathlete" into something not yet defined. She starts hanging out with the "burn-outs," who while not aspiring academics are still pretty decent people. Meanwhile, Sam and his friends are just trying to survive freshman year without getting beaten up.

Critics and many viewers (though ultimately not enough viewers to satisfy NBC) were drawn in by the characters, who were complicated yet easy to relate to - and more like real high-school kids than the ones on Dawson's Creek or Beverly Hills, 90210. But the 1980 time period was also an intriguing difference, and music played a major role in setting that scene.

Feig said that when writing the pilot, he and executive producer Judd Apatow figured they would lay the music in afterward ("like in Goodfellas or something"). But they quickly found it worked better to write particular songs into the show and base scenes around them.

Licensing the songs from the era, though, was complicated - and expensive. Each episode had a music budget, and the producers had to make judgments about which songs could go and which they could not do without. "All those songs were so integral," Feig said, "it was like cutting a character" when the show couldn't afford one.

The show's writers had hoped to use quite a bit of Led Zeppelin, due in no small part to Lindsay's drummer friend Nick, who is obsessed with Zeppelin's John Bonham, but the cost proved to be prohibitive. But some vintage 1980 groups were happy to help.

"Van Halen was great to us, as were Cheap Trick and Ted Nugent," Feig said. "Once we had our groups, we'd go back to them, like Styx. We tried to be true to the people who helped us out."

That didn't stop them from chasing songs they really wanted, though.

"I still can't believe we got XTC's `No Language in Our Lungs,' " which plays over a scene of Sam and his friends getting picked last for gym class. "That's one of my favorite songs of all time, and it was a dream come true," Feig said.

They also managed to get several Billy Joel tracks for an episode in which Sam and his friends get crushes on a new girl at school, and a number of Who songs for an episode in which Lindsay tries to persuade her parents to allow her to go to a Who concert, and Sam's friend Bill deals with his mother dating his nemesis, the gym teacher.

"Shout [Factory] was so great [to take on] the project of clearing every single song," Feig said.

Part of the reason the company was willing to do so was an online petition at www.freaksandgeeks.com. "We could say people wanted the show on DVD until we were blue in the face - and people had been e-mailing us for ages, but we hadn't saved all of [the messages]," Feig said. "With a petition asking, `Would you buy this?' they could run the numbers and see that we could do it.

"Without the petition, we wouldn't be talking."

Bob Emmers, chief operating officer at Shout Factory, agreed.

"The online fan sites, the Web sites and postings are very important - a great pre-marketing tool to validate your instincts that there's an audience," he said.

This validation was critical, Emmers said, because Shout spent more than nine months and hundreds of thousands of dollars securing the licenses for each song in the show. "Can you imagine if we'd spent all this time and all this money getting the DVDs out and nobody bought it?"

That shouldn't be a problem, because nearly 40,000 fans signed the online petition saying they would buy the show on DVD.

The cost of the music resulted in Freaks and Geeks - The Complete Series having a higher than average price: $69.95 for the six-disc set, which features all 18 episodes (including three that never aired on NBC), nearly 30 commentary tracks, blooper reels, auditions and other bonus material.

A special edition, which includes two more discs of bonus features and a "yearbook" with more pictures and stories from the series, is also available for $120 at www.freaksandgeeks.com.

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