'Welcome Back, Kotter - The Complete First Season'
(Gabe Kaplan, John Travolta, et al / 4-Disc DVD / NR / (1975) 2007 / Warner Bros.)
Overview: Gabe Kotter, formerly a Sweathog, returns to James Buchanan High as a teacher and is assigned the remedial class to which he once belonged. Mr. Kotter is an involved and caring teacher, which one would have to be in dealing with a certain four students in his class, who end up in trouble on a regular basis -- lady's man Vinnie Barbarino, the always cool Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington, the tough Juan (Luis Pedro Phillipo de Huevos) Epstein, and the sheepish Arnold Dingfelder Horshack. Welcome Back, Kotter was based on Gabe Kaplan's own high school experiences with remedial education and a teacher who cared dearly for her students.
DVD Verdict: Let's face it, "Welcome Back Kotter" was the REAL "That 70's Show" - the inner city urban version. You may not remember, but originally the pilot was shown as the third episode of the season! I can't remember the last time I even saw this show in syndication on channels such as Nick at Nite that specialize in dusting off old sitcoms unseen for years.
The comic premise of the show is that Gabe Kotter, newly graduated from college and certified to teach, has returned to teach the same remedial class of high school misfits of which he was a member ten years earlier. Vice Principal Woodman, who was the object of Gabe's torments and jokes ten years earlier, is still employed at the high school and gives Gabe this job as the ultimate irony and revenge for what Gabe had put him through. Of course, this show is sugar-coated compared to the real problems and issues of a New York City public school in a poor neighborhood, but it had to be since this was a sitcom, not a drama.
The show had a great cast playing great characters - there was Horshack, the class nerd with the nasal laugh; Barbarino, the cool maverick who was a little slow on the uptake; Epstein with the mixed Latino/Jewish heritage and the great excused absence notes signed by "Epstein's mother", and last but not least, Washington. There was a great common enemy in Mr. Woodman, who you couldn't help but feel a little sorry for. Finally, the show had a great location in Brooklyn and a memorable theme song by John Sebastian that you are much more likely to hear today than see the show from whence it came. For three wonderful seasons from 1975 to 1978 it was a comedy classic. But, alas, all things must come to an end.
After John Travolta starred in the back-to-back hits of "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease", he would hardly return anyone's phone calls, much less show up for work on a regular basis. Thus the fourth season not only jumped the shark, it pretty much made it over the Gulf of Mexico. What was really going on behind the scenes in 1978, if I remember correctly, was a bruising battle of the egos catalyzed by Travolta's new-found superstar status. To compensate for all the turmoil and in-fighting among the cast, Kotter is made vice-principal to explain all of Gabe Kaplan's absences, then the show added Stephen Shortridge as an entirely inadequate placeholder for Travolta. The final straw was when the show seemed to be endorsing the marriage of two high-schoolers - Horshack and Mary - and then Horshack began drinking heavily afterwards.
The irony is that the stardom status for everyone involved instantaneously evaporated after the show that their egos destroyed was cancelled in 1979. The only one to ever recover their stardom was Travolta, and then it took ten years before he could even land a job playing straight man to a talking baby ("Look Who's Talking"). I hate to sound bitter, but it's hard not to be considering what a great show it was during the first three seasons of its all too-brief four season run. This is a Standard Version Presentation (1.85:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs and comes with the Special Features of:
Actors' Original Screen Tests
"Only a Few Degrees from a Sweathog" - Retrospective Featurette