I’ll admit that when Cobra Kai was announced I was beyond skeptical, I was downright opposed to it. It reeked of another cheap nostalgia trip being carried out by a couple of guys who weren’t getting work anymore (Ralph Macchio and William Zabka) who were able to sucker some money guys into funding their project and passing it off on YouTube Red, a C-level streaming broadcasting outlet desperately looking for content. There’s no way this isn’t going to be terrible, I thought. The only thing drawing me in was that I’d seen the original Karate Kid movie a million times growing up, so I was in the target demographic that they were looking to sucker in, I mean attract. I struggled a long time with whether or not it was worth it to pay for YouTube Red just two watch one show that was probably going to be awful. Then they announced that the first 30 days were free so I figured why not? I’d probably regret it but I’ve done worse.
But something happened along the way. The show got some great reviews! Talk about defying the odds. So now there was no way I could pass it up. I just needed time to get around to it so I could take it all in. That finally happened, and now I’m ready to tell you what I thought. Would this be another cheap continuation like Fuller House or Girl Meets World or something better like Creed? Only one way to find out for sure. So let’s see how it went!
Cobra Kai is about what happens when you peak in high school, get embarrassed by the kid you spent months tormenting, and then the bottom falls out for you while he goes on to prosper in every aspect of life. Zabka reprises his role from 30 years ago of Johnny Lawrence, one time star pupil of the Cobra Kai karate dojo while Macchio comes back as Daniel Laruso, the hero of the original Karate Kid who overcame some major bullying at the hands of Lawrence with the help of karate teacher Mr. Myagi. Now some 30-plus years later Daniel is a successful car salesman while Lawrence is a down on his luck handyman estranged from his son and just losing at life in general. Lawrence is also just a little bit racist at the beginning, no fan of his Hispanic apartment neighbors.
But a little ways into the first episode things begin to change. Johnny sees his neighbor Miguel, a teenage boy that he was insulting earlier in the day, getting jumped by a bunch of kids the same way he and his buddies used to jump Laruso. He intervenes and just like that finds himself in the position of being sought out to help Miguel and several other kids turn the tables on their social status by teaching them karate. While this is going on, Daniel gets wind of what Johnny is up to and confronts him, worried that his former rival is starting back up the group that embodied all of the things that karate is not supposed to be about.
The last thing I figured would happen is Johnny Lawrence, the quintessential 80s teen movie villain, would become a layered three dimensional character. But Zabka and the show’s writers pulled that off. Johnny, while not really being what you would call a good guy, becomes a very sympathetic figure as he tries to put his life together and help someone else for a change all while struggling not to embrace the extremes he was taught by his abusive former teacher John Kreese. Johnny was failed by the people who were supposed to guide him to adulthood and we see the results of that failure all throughout the season.
Johnny has been neglected and abused by his parents and his karate teacher, has in turn neglected his own son, and gets dangerously close to repeating the same abuse that Kreese inflicted on him years ago. But through it all he is trying to be a better man in spite of the bad things that have been instilled in him. It’s a really compelling character portrayal, sending you from rooting for Johnny to shaking your head sometimes all in the same scene. In taking on students who are among the misfits of high school Johnny finds himself teaching the kinds of kids he would have been tormenting at their age and often slips into old habits calling them nerds and losers. But at other times he shows genuine concern for their growth and truly wants to help them become better. We also see in Johnny a man struggling against the times, not familiar with things like social media and still driving around in an 80s Firebird while watching re-airings of Iron Eagle on TV.
Another big plus was how they handled the flashbacks and other nostalgia elements. Johnny’s TV and music choices were perfect for a man stuck in the 80s three decades later. With projects like this there is a danger both of leaning too much into the old material and running too far from it. They hit the right notes almost perfectly here. The direct flashbacks to the original film were always at the right time, and the scenes that referenced it were all well placed with just the right degree of reverence. They brought back some of the old cast members (I won’t spoil who), but kept everyone to the right amount of minutes, so to speak. There’s even a clever part where Johnny engages in some revisionist history to paint himself and Daniel in different lights than they really were at the time. They really did almost perfectly blend the reminiscing with the looking forward.
Lastly, the show provided a good look at the changing landscape of the place where Johnny and Daniel grew up. The original film had an almost entirely white cast outside of Mr. Myagi and few extras. Cobra Kai has a mix of everything, and even plays off of those changes in the earliest episodes. Johnny isn’t just trying to figure out how to get his life together he’s also dealing with a changing world around him and while he eventually embraces the kids of various races that seek him out for help when things start out he clearly states his disdain for immigrants (or even those who ‘look like immigrants’ but have grown up here their whole lives).
Not a whole lot here. Things did get a bit convoluted at the end where all the roads intersected a bit too smoothly. Johnny’s son had a character arc that was a bit much, even for something like this. You have to see it for yourself but some of the choices he made were a bit way too convenient. And the very end of the finale threatens to throw a wrench and undo all of the character building that was done for Johnny over the course of this season. It really set things on a road to being way more over the top than this series should be. The show was at it’s best when it stuck to the real life themes and not trying to be totally 80s awesome.
Really good and way better than I thought it would be. The only question is whether or not this one series is enough for me to stick with YouTube Red as a streaming service. One of the podcasts I check out sometimes, Heeltown USA, has an episode devoted solely to talking about the upcoming content wars between Netflix, Disney, ESPN, and others. Namely there are going to be more and more of these services and there’s no way we can afford them all so people are going to have to choose so content is key. Right now I get Netflix, Hulu, and the WWE Network. I’ll probably be adding Disney when it drops and the WB/DC Comics one as well. But at some point this stuff is going to add up to a cable bill, which of course defeats the purpose of ditching cable in the first place (I haven’t yet). Having scanned some of the other stuff on YouTube Red it’s pretty slim pickings for the moment. If Kobra Kai’s success drives a big bump in subscriptions then maybe they can start adding some more things I’ll be interested in. We’ll see. But do check out Cobra Kai.