The sitcom that gave John Travolta his first breakout role makes its DVD debut this week, along with a number of other TV shows.
“Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Series” (Shout!/Warner/DVD, 1975-79, 16 discs, 95 episodes, featurette, screen tests; 28-page booklet). The plot for this popular sitcom has Gabe Kotter returning to his Brooklyn high school alma matter as a teacher, taking on a remedial class of misfits known as “sweathogs.” The school looks upon them as thugs, but Kotter becomes a father figure to the group.
The series is based on Gabe Kaplan’s stand-up comedy routines, in which he told stories about characters similar to the sweathogs, played in the show as Vinnie Barbarino (Travolta), Arnold Horshack (Ron Palillo), Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and Juan Epstein (Robert Hegyes). Played by actors in their 20s, they are watered-down versions of troubled youth in a show that never strives for realism. In fact, it’s more of a vaudeville act with each episode’s storyline lending itself to comedy “bits.”
But if a sitcom’s first objective is to provoke laughter, “Kotter” succeeds, especially in the first two seasons when many episodes have laugh-out-loud gags. The third season is weaker and the fourth goes off the rails, especially as both Vinnie and Kotter disappear for long stretches. But fans, I’m sure, will be happy to have the entire series for the first time.
Kotter’s wife is played by Marcia Strassman (who would later co-star with Rick Moranis in the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” movies) and guests include James Woods, George Carlin, Pat Morita, John Astin and Della Reese.
“The Men From Shiloh: Special Edition” (Timeless/DVD, 1970-71, nine discs, 24 episodes, featurettes). This is the ninth and final season of TV’s first 90-minute Western, “The Virginian,” which, for some unexplained reason, underwent a name change when Stewart Granger came aboard as the English colonel that buys the Shiloh ranch. Only James Drury as the Virginian and Doug McClure as Trampas remained during the show’s entire nine-year run, joined this season by Lee Majors. (This show is the third-longest running TV Western, after “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.”)
L.Q. Jones shows up in one episode in his recurring role as Belden, and he, James Drury, Clu Gulager and Utahn Roberta Shore are interviewed in featurettes (though only Jones and Drury are seen in this season). Guests include Janet Leigh, Greer Garson, Van Johnson, Vera Miles, Desi Arnaz, Art Carney, Anne Francis, Joseph Cotten, Diane Baker, Tom Skerritt, Ann Sothern, Carolyn Jones, Peter Lawford and Burgess Meredith.
“Elementary: The Second Season” (CBS/Paramount/DVD, 2013-14, six discs, 24 episodes, deleted scenes, featurettes, bloopers). Very good 21st-century update of Sherlock Holmes as a reformed addict living in Manhattan and helping the NYPD solve homicides. Smart stories, sharp dialogue and excellent performances by Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and especially Lucy Liu as Dr. Jane Watson. Aiden Quinn co-stars as the police captain.
“Now and Again: The DVD Edition” (CBS/Paramount, 1999-2000, five discs, 22 episodes, featurettes). Good sci-fi series that was cut short as a one-season wonder has a scientist (Dennis Haysbert) developing an artificial human body (Eric Close) to use as a government spy, and it’s perfect, except for the brain. So when an office worker (John Goodman) is killed in a train accident, his brain is implanted in the superspy. He agrees to become an agent but is distressed that he can’t contact his wife (Margaret Colin) and daughter (Heather Matarazzo).
“Haven: The Complete Fourth Season” (eOne/Blu-ray/DVD, 2013, four discs, 13 episodes, audio commentaries, featurettes, webisodes, bloopers; 16-page comic book). Entertaining fantasy series loosely based on Stephen King’s “The Colorado Kid,” with a touch of “The Twilight Zone.” Good cast and ingratiating characters, though the “monster-of-the-week” stories are more intriguing than the confusing multiseason arc about “the barn.” Emily Rose, Lucas Bryant and Eric Balfour star.
“Criminal Minds: Season 9” (CBS/Paramount/DVD, 2013-14, six discs, 24 episodes, deleted scenes, featurette, bloopers). Tough procedural about an FBI unit capturing serial killers. Good cast is led by Thomas Gibson, Jeanne Tripplehorn and the great Joe Mantegna. Season 10 starts in October with Tripplehorn being replaced by — gulp — Jennifer Love Hewitt.
“Revenge: The Complete Third Season” (ABC/DVD, 2013-14, five discs, 22 episodes, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, featurettes, bloopers). Emily tries a new strategy to take down the Graysons but is threatened with exposure by new enemies. What, again? Emily Van Camp stars but Madeleine Stowe steals the show.
“Murder in Suburbia: Complete Collection” (Acorn/DVD, 2004-05, four discs, 12 episodes, photo gallery). Solid mystery series about two female police detectives who are completely unalike but, of course, are made partners. The stars — Caroline Katz (“Doc Martin”) and Lisa Faulkner (“Murdoch Mysteries”) — are great as the working-class-meets-upper-crust pair, and the stories are well-plotted.
“Blandings: Series 2” (Acorn/DVD, 2014, two discs, seven episodes, photo gallery). Further adventures of the dysfunctional tenants at Blandings Castle, an ancestral home run by an even more dysfunctional sister and brother, played by Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Timothy Spall. A half-hour sitcom based on the P.G. Wodehouse stories.
“Deadbeat: Season One” (Lionsgate/DVD/Digital, 2014, 10 episodes, featurettes). Supernatural sitcom about a New York slacker/stoner who sees dead people, so he hires himself out as a medium, though he faces fierce competition. Tyler Labine stars in this Hulu online series. (Exclusively at Target stores for the first few weeks.)
“Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death” (Athena/DVD, 2013, two discs, three episodes, text biography; 12-page booklet). Dr. Helen Castor, Cambridge historian and host of a BBC Radio history show, leads us through the experiences of the title during the Middle Ages in this documentary miniseries.Comment on this story
“75 Years of WWII” (Lionsgate/DVD, 2008-14, two discs, five episodes). Four History cable channel specials on World War II are collected here, including the two-part “D-Day in HD,” highlighted by personal accounts from soldiers on both sides.
“LEGO Friends: Friends Are Forever” (Warner/DVD, 2014, three episodes). Animated episodes based on the LEGO Friends toy line: “New Girl in Town,” “Stephanie’s Surprise Party” and “Dolphin Cruise.”
“The Magic School Bus: Space Adventures” (Cinedigm/Scholastic/DVD, 2014, four episodes; 70-page book). Space exploration-themed episodes for first-graders and older: “Gets Lost in Space,” “Out of This World,” “Gains Weight” and “Plays Ball.” The book has Ms. Frizzle taking her class into outer space.