A great figure of our time once said that “making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.” And come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was Bart Simpson.
The series is set against the backdrop of the carnivalesque scenery of California’s most notorious beachfront, Venice, CA – the colorful home of skateboarders and freaks, millionaires and greased-up body-builders – and, according to Hegyes, “where the wealthy and the welfare state live in harmony.” It’s makes sense that the characters in Hegyes’ docudrama would come from every walk of life (black, white, poor, rich, etc.), bound together by the same penchant for rule-breaking and the unfortunate circumstances of getting caught.
In Venice, Hegyes (best known for his role as Sweathog Juan Epstein in Welcome Back, Kotter) plays an NYPD gang cop, Paco Santana, who, after getting shot during an undercover sting, is forced to retire. Taking on the role of a juvenile probation officer in Venice, CA, he works on the cases of seven teenagers, where each character is the personification of some form of typical teenage delinquency – there’s the clepto, the druggie, the brawler, the racketeer, the hacker, the car thief and the vandal.
Meanwhile, Paco, who tries to keep the kids out of trouble, battles demons of his own. “It’s a reluctant hero story,” Hegyes says of his character, who is an addict with a guilty conscience looking to find some redemption through his new calling.
In the tradition of “writing what you know,” Hegyes, who also produces, directs and writes the show, combines his experience in television with his history of being a teacher at Venice High School to come up with ideas. “The kids are very real to me…I have four teenagers of my own. I was basically Mr. Mom…so between my kids and their 100 friends who hang out at the beach house [in Venice], and teaching high school, I’ve spent a lot of time being around young people,” he explained on the phone.
One thing that Hegyes quickly picked up on from spending so much time with teenagers was their obsession with the internet and, in particular, watching videos on YouTube. “There are people who think that kids won’t have the attention span to watch a whole series online. Those people obviously don’t have kids.”
Hoping to prove the nay-sayers wrong, Hegyes wants to turn his six-episode “pilot” into a full-fledged 100-ep docudrama and, at this point, he is gunning for a production deal. Using the mantra “failure is not an option,” Hegyes made the project using his own resources. “The show is federally funded,” he jokes, as Hegyes cashed unemployment checks from his job at the high school to produce the pilot.
The money went to various costs, including the most basic of craft services (“I bought pizza, coffee, doughnuts”), but most of the show was made with a little help from his friends. In addition to employing the casting prowess of a good contact who found actors that would work pro bono, and also the editing services of Michael Nallin, some of Hegyes’ long-time buds make cameos in the series, including Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (you may remember him as Freddie “Boom-Boom” Washington from Kotter) and Martin Kove (that evil Sensei guy from Karate Kid).
As for the show, Hegyes calls it the ‘Anti-OC,” and hopes that there’s a place for a serial docudrama in a world of web TV. But even he knows that his 7-minute episodes of teenage degeneracy are an anomaly among the unending supply of comedic shorts on the net. But to him, Welcome Back, Kotter was the Marx Brothers of the 70s. Now, he wants to bring an R-rated version of the Sweathogs into the 21st century.