Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series DVD Review: A Funny Show Even When Dealing with Serious Topics

Welcome Back, Kotter is a reference to Gabe Kotter (co-creator Gabe Kaplan, whose life and stand-up material inspired the show), who returns to his alma mater in Brooklyn, New York, to teach remedial high-school students, dubbed “the Sweathogs,” which he used to be when he was their age. The theme song by John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful covers the premise and went on to become a No. 1 hit.

Buy Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series DVD

While Kotter is married to Julie (Marcia Strassman) and they have twin girls at the start of Season Three, the show mainly focuses on Kotter mentoring four students. He uses his sense of humor, when not telling Julie jokes about his family members, to connect with the kids. Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes) is a Puerto Rican Jew. He is tough guy from a big family, but he’s not very smart as seen when he brings notes from home signed “Epstein’s Mother.” Freddie “Boom Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is African American and always tries to play it cool. Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo) is a nerd with a memorable honking laugh. Vinnie Barbarino (John Travolta) is an Italian American. He’s the leader of the Sweathogs and gets lots of girls. He was the show’s breakout character with a popularity and catch phrases that rivaled Happy Days‘s Fonzie and Good Times‘s Jimmie Walker.

The storylines are frequently about issues that high-schoolers deal with, such as Vinnie running for Class President, Epstein smoking, and Freddie taking pills, as well as family drama and affairs of the heart. Granted, it looks a tad odd since all the actors were in their 20s when the show began. A frequent nemesis is vice-principal Woodman (John Sylvester White), an amusingly cranky old man who taught Kotter when he attended the high school. He thinks little of all the Sweathogs, Kotter included.

There are changes in the fourth season that alter the show. Kaplan disagreed with the direction of the show and the change in the writing staff so he ended up quitting. To deal with it, Kotter was promoted to vice-principal after Woodman was made principal and only appears in a few episodes yet Kaplan still
received an acting credit throughout the season. After starring in box-office hits Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978), TV could no longer keep Travolta. While now billed as a “Special Guest Star,” he
was only in 10 out of the first 15 episodes. There was no formal goodbye. Vinnie had quit school and got a job earlier in the season, but he just stopped appearing. Julie became a secretary and then a substitute teacher at the school. New characters joined the cast, such as Beau De Labarre (Stephen Shortridge), but the ratings were terrible and the show was cancelled without any wrap up for the characters.

Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series presents all four seasons (95 episodes on 12 DVDs) of the classic ’70s sitcom. Like many shows of the era, it makes heavy use of a laugh track, but don’t hold that against it as it’s a funny show even when dealing with serious topics.

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Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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