Chris Hicks: ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ TV series makes its DVD debut this week

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 4:20 p.m. MDT

Clockwise from left, John Travolta, Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Gabe Kaplan star in "Welcome Back, Kotter." The complete ’70s sitcom is on DVD for the first time this week.

The Shout! Factory

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).

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