Published on May 22nd, 2018 | by Craig Silliphant0
Cobra Kai, YouTube’s sequel show to the original Karate Kid movies, rekindles the rivalry of two of its main players, Daniel and Johnny. It works!
In criticism, nostalgia is generally considered a bad thing, and while I can see why, I also buck this a bit. Sure, there are movies that I probably only love because I saw them when I was a kid. But anti-nostalgia thinking implies that I can’t separate my feelings from my actual thoughts when asked to look at something objectively, which just isn’t true. For example, I love David Lynch’s Dune for a variety of reasons, from bringing back sleepover memories to remembering the first times I delved into reading Herbert’s dense books. However, I can never recommend Dune to anyone without a variety of caveats. It’s just not a good movie by normal standards.
Anyway, no matter where you stand on nostalgia, the new YouTube Red show, Cobra Kai, is definitely banking on it, both to garner viewers and to have a little fun within the story itself. Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s will remember the pop culture obsession with martial arts (in a pre-MMA world) and ninjas in general. The Karate Kid cashed in on this with two movies (then they made two more) and I was at just the right age to be in the pocket for its Coles Notes philosophizing and bully-demolishing karate.
The show picks up some 30 years after the events of The Karate Kid, and in fact, doesn’t start by checking in with Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, but instead with William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence, a bold choice that sets the tone for this occasionally narratively gutsy series. Most people would recognize Lawrence as perhaps the quintessential meme blueprint for the whole idea of 80s movie bullies. As we pick up Johnny’s life for most of episode one, we see that losing the All Valley Karate Tournament and leaving Cobra Kai left an indelible mark on him. He’s become a loser with an estranged wife and son, doing odd jobs and drinking until he passes out.
This is where the show establishes the balancing act it will have with many of its main characters. Johnny is a man out of time, not only in terms of his Trumpish attitude and ignorance of things like race, gender issues, and the current language of each, but even in his awareness of something as ubiquitous as Facebook. The show gets to have its cake and eat it too — it’s both a comment on dinosaur-like ignorance as well as PC culture run amok.
And yet, before the end of the first episode, the show makes him sympathetic. You want to see this guy turn his life around. As Cobra Kai goes on and we get to know Johnny as more than the cardboard bully he once was, the show also oddly reaches back to explore some of the more recent thinking about The Karate Kid. Some have re-evaluated it and found that Daniel is actually more of the bully — he incites a lot of the situations in the film, where Johnny will break out some karate if you mess with him, but actually doesn’t really show bullying behaviour otherwise. There’s a telling scene in Cobra Kai where Johnny remembers the events of The Karate Kid from his own point of view, recalling that Daniel was a total dickhead who was always messing with him. And that crane kick was an illegal move, by the way. Johnny is one of the most interesting TV characters of the year, even if the show doesn’t take itself overly seriously.
The POV shifts to Daniel himself in episode two, as we see that he has channeled his success and karate-gained self-confidence into owning car dealerships and having a family. He tries to do the right thing and live by the Miyagi code, but he’s also still a bit of a hothead, which is good in terms of oscillating back and forth between Daniel-san and Johnny as to who you’re rooting for at any given moment.
There are other characters that enter the fray as well, in interesting ways. Miguel is a sweet kid who is being bullied in school. But when he convinces Johnny to give him karate training in the Cobra Kai way (“Strike First, Strike Hard, No Mercy”), you wonder where it will take him; remember Miyagi’s, “there are no bad students, only bad teachers.”
Because they can play with characters like Daniel and Johnny, as well as some of the others, the show is a lot less predictable than you might expect, for a while. Sometimes, you’re not even sure who you should be cheering for — and it feels weird and wonderful to cheer for Johnny over Daniel sometimes. Of course, there are still a few stock bullies around, but there’s more depth of character overall. And while Mr. Miyagi is no longer with us (actor Pat Morita died in 2005), he is still felt during the series, perhaps in a similar fashion to the way the shadow of Ned Stark still fell over Game of Thrones long after the character being dispatched.
Cobra Kai has something to say about bullying, which is meaningful, even though the execution borders on silliness sometimes. Watching it the same weekend as 13 Reasons Why season two came out was an interesting comparison. They both have a lot of the same themes and situations, except one show is about suicide, while in the other series, all problems are solved with karate.
There are some coincidences that are too big to be swallowed and the finish heads more towards a more standard good vs. bad ending, but the show is still often better than it has any right to be. Whether Cobra Kai is exploring 80s references and indulgences or just riffing on Johnny’s cluelessness, it’s a goofy kind of fun, with a winking self-awareness.
The first two episodes of Cobra Kai are available free on YouTube. Now excuse, me I have to go buy myself a BMX and sign up for karate lessons.