The end of the road is finally here for ABC’s timeless sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter. Late last month, Shout! Factory released the final season of the classic series on DVD. And Welcome Back, Kotter: The Complete Fourth Season is quite the interesting way for this one of-a-kind series to go out. As viewers will note in going through each of the season’s twenty-three total episodes, the writers are to be very highly commended for handling the drastic changes to the series’ landscape. That is the central aspect of the season’s success. It will be discussed shortly. In connection to the work of the writers, the work of the series’ cast is just as important to its whole. After the near complete departure of one-time star John Travolta and series head Gabriel Kaplan, Robert Hegyes, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Ron Palillo carried on quite well alongside Marcia Strassman and John Sylvester White. Last but hardly least of note is the series’ overall production values. Audiences will appreciate that once again the show looks and sounds surprisingly good even as more than three decades have passed since the show ended its run on ABC. All things considered, Welcome Back, Kotter goes out on a high note in its fourth and final season. The proverbial waters were not easy to tread considering the show’s changes. But somehow all involved managed to navigate them. The end result is a collection of episodes that every Kotter fan will want to have in his or her own DVD library even though it really is in its final season Welcome Back, Kotter in name only.
Welcome Back, Kotter is in its final season Welcome Back, Kotter in name only. That is because in this the series’ final season, Mr. Kotter (Gabe Kaplan) is written almost entirely out of the show after the season’s first three episodes. After those first three episodes, the only mentions of Mr. Kotter come in the part of his wife (played by Marcia Strassman) mentioning him being at this conference or that–as he is now the school’s Vice Principal–whenever now Principal Woodland is looking for him. She essentially becomes the Kotter in Welcome Back, Kotter. All of this aside, Season Four still manages to be just as entertaining as the series’ previous three seasons. The main reason for that enjoyment is the work of the show’s writers. The work of the series’ writers in the final season of Welcome Back, Kotter is one of the most important reasons for the show’s success. With what can only assume was the departure of star Gabe Kaplan from the show and the all but nonexistent John Travolta (Travolta appears in this season only in a handful of episodes), the writers had a lot to handle. That’s because it forced the writers to either adjust to the changes or completely overhaul the show. Luckily, they did the prior and did so with the utmost professionalism. They crafted twenty-three episodes that stylistically were familiar both to the cast and crew, and to viewers. They also exhibited the writers’ collective ability to show that the series could still float even without two of its main stars. Sure there were some changes here and there. But by and large, the emphasis on education, friendship and other serious subjects were just as appreciable as the laughs that were tied into every one of the season’s episodes. Some of the best examples of that balance and solid writing come in the form of “Washington’s Clone,” “The Gang Show,” and “Once Upon A Ledge.” The prior of the trio takes a similar tone as that of the season’s two-part premiere in its emphasis on the importance of education. The difference between the two is that “Washington’s Clone” tackles the subject by having Washington having to address a straight-A student named Arthur who wants to be just like him instead of the student everybody had come to know him to be. Arthur goes so far as to steal watches from his father’s store in order to try and impress Washington. What’s really interesting here is that for all of the “coolness” for which he is normally known, Washington is forced to show an unfamiliar, serious side in which he has to play counselor to Arthur in his attempt to get Arthur back on the right track. It’s a surprising yet welcome change to see from Washington. “The Gang Show” is more light-hearted but still tackles some serious issues in the process. That light-hearted approach begins right at the episode’s title, which playfully pokes fun at the one-time hit game show The Gong Show. Beau and Arnold become judges for the school’s annual talent show in this episode. Fittingly Epstein and Washington team up for their own act. This forces Arnold and Beau to balance loyalty and friendship with honesty and honor as judges. The result is absolutely comical but still presents a good message that even today’s younger viewers will appreciate. Those same viewers will appreciate the writers’ tackling of teen suicide as new character Mary Johnson threatens suicide because she feels unnoticed and unappreciated by anyone else at school. Go figure, she would go on to be a key character in the season’s advancement. These are just a few examples of how the writing that went into Season Four make it work so well even with the seeming departure of Kaplan in front of the camera at least and the near full departure of John Travolta. Each of the season’s remaining twenty episodes could just as easily be used as examples of the writers’ talents, too. For instance, the handling of alcohol abuse (and more specifically teen alcohol abuse) in “Come Back, Little Arnold,” the lessons of friendship and truth in media in “The Sweat Smell of Success” and the still hot button topic of sex education in “X-Rated Education.” Whether through these episodes, the ones more directly addressed, or through any of the season’s others, it can be said that the episodes in whole prove clearly the importance of the show’s writing even with the changes that came with the season. They are just part of what makes this season work as well as it does, too. The work of the show’s cast proves just as pivotal to its success and enjoyment.
The work of the writers behind Welcome Back, Kotter shows throughout each of this season’s episodes makes this season just as enjoyable as the series’ previous three seasons. That is the case even despite the changing landscape of the show in its final run. In connection to the work of the show’s writers, the work of the show’s cast is just as pivotal to its continued enjoyment. This is key to note because of the noted changes. Stars Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs were forced into the spotlight after [Gabe] Kaplan was essentially written out along with Travolta’s Vinnie Barberino. The trio handled their new roles with just as much professionalism as the show’s writers. There were plenty of laughs from the trio’s mix of physical comedy and almost Three-Stooges style back and forth throughout each episode. Even when it was time for the trio to step up and be more serious, such as when they get Norman to admit to his trouble with alcohol and when they had to get Arthur back on the right track, they did so with an equal level of expertise. Interestingly enough, Beau (Stephen Shortridge) was rather underutilized after his introduction as the newest member of the Sweathogs. It’s almost as if he was brought in without full forethought. Even considering this, Palillo, Hegyes, and Hilton-Jacobs hold their own and create plenty of laughs and moving moments through this season, showing time and again why their work was so important to the season’s success.
Both the work of the writers behind Welcome Back, Kotter and that of the show’s cast are of equal importance to the enjoyment and overall success of the series’ final season. As important as both elements are to the whole of the recently released box set neither would be worth the mention without mention of the set’s production values. Specifically speaking none of it would be worth mentioning without mention of the footage’s audio and video mix. In regards to its video mix, the footage looks just as impressive as that in the series’ previous standalone season sets. The season has been restored to its original condition. And once again, the grainy look of the footage has been cleaned up without losing that original look that the show presented in its original run. The sound is just as enjoyable. Considering the recording tech available at the time, that says quite a bit. When set alongside the work of the show’s cast and writers, the work of those charged with restoring Season Four’s footage makes this final installment of Welcome Back, Kotter one last must have for Kotter fans and classic TV fans alike.
The fourth and final season of Welcome Back, Kotter is one last must have both for fans of the classic series and for classic television fans alike. That is proven through the work of the series’ writers and cast, and through the work of those charged with restoring the footage for its presentation here. Season Four is available now in stores and online and can be ordered direct via Shout! Factory’s online store at https://www.shoutfactory.com/tv/comedy/welcome-back-kotter-the-final-season. More information on this and other titles from Shout! Factory is available online now at:
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