Sunday, May 20, 2018

Cobra Kai

Creators: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Starring: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan, Joe Seo, Jacob Bertrand, Nichole Brown, Griffin Santopietro, Bret Ernst, Ed Asner
Original Airdate: 2018

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Few recent sequel announcements of a long-beloved franchise or movie series have been met with as much skepticism as YouTube Red's Cobra Kai. While it appeared the final nail was put into The Karate Kid as a pop culture property eight years ago with an embarrassing remake that may now further recede from collective memory thanks to the existence of this show. If anything good came of that ill-fated reboot starring a certain movie star's son, it's that it only increased our appreciation of the original, with which it shared a title and little else.

YouTube Red's Cobra Kai
To this day, and maybe never more than in the past week, I'll strongly contend the 1984 film is criminally undervalued and a better overall experience than Rocky, to which it's frequently measured against. The comparison's worth noting since they not only share the same director, but have recently been revived with similar "What If?" creative approaches. 2015's Creed asked what would happen if Apollo Creed's son were trained by Rocky. It opened pandora's box, creating a strong link between old and new that most of the franchise's previous efforts couldn't come close to matching.

While not as severely damaged as Rocky by multiple sequels, The Karate Kid  has just never been taken as seriously despite its quality and longevity having earned it the right. Ironically, it's that perception that facilitated this comeback, resulting in numerous videos and a How I Met Your Mother theory that's accidentally evolved into accepted franchise canon over the years. We had it all wrong. Johnny Lawrence is the good guy. Daniel LaRusso is the bad guy. Johnny was just minding his own business when that Jersey punk moved in on his girl, took his Karate title and pretty much destroyed his life. Forgetting the theory doesn't really hold up to logical scrutiny and loads of details are omitted to make it fly, there's just the tiniest kernel of truth to make you grin, and appreciate everything just a little more.

Cobra Kai takes that germ of an idea to the next level, envisioning a present-day scenario that asks, "What if Johnny was the main character and decided to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo?" And with that, we're off to the races, the question hinting at all sorts of possibilities that creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg explore within every inch and crevice of their ten expertly paced and constructed episodes.

Daniel vs. Johnny in '84
So much more than a mere trip down memory lane for diehards, it's the blueprint all future reboots or sequels of nostalgic film and TV properties would be wise to follow. It seamlessly sets up its premise, delivering a mixture of self-aware comedy and pathos that deepens and expands the original characters and ideas, successfully reimagining the entire franchise with a fresh coat of creative paint over thirty years later.

When the last episode ends, you'll want to sit down and rewatch The Karate Kid, and doing it with a even greater appreciation, mostly due to what's accomplished in this series. While the words "Cobra Kai" now mean something entirely different and more nuanced than in '84, the surest sign of the show's success comes in the finals of the 2018 All Valley Karate Championship, which feels as monumental as the classic original showdown. And we care just as much about the two new combatants on opposing sides of the mat, and the story that puts them there, built on the foundation of everything right about the film that inspired it. 

34 years since his loss to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) in the finals the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship, a drunk, broke, down on his luck fifty-something Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) has just been fired from his latest job as a handyman. One night while drinking and wallowing on the sidewalk of a strip mall, he notices his teenage neighbor Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) being beaten up by a group of bullies and comes to his defense, assaulting them and spending a night in jail.

LaRusso Auto Group: "Chopping Prices"
Having been sprung from the slammer by his wealthy, verbally abusive stepfather, Sid (Ed Asner), his 80's sports car is soon wrecked in a hit and run while reminiscing at the All Valley Sports Arena. Unfortunately for him, his car is towed to LaRusso Motors for repair, with Johnny coming face-to-face with his high school rival, now an extremely successful used car dealer in the San Fernando Valley. Despite Daniel's willingness to fix Johnny's car for free, his former karate opponent's success only serves to painfully remind him how big a failure he's become.

Everywhere Johnny turns is a commercial or billboard touting Daniel, and that jealousy and resentment sparks in him the idea to use Sid's money to reopen the Cobra Kai karate dojo. He takes on Miguel as his first pupil, and despite his overly aggressive, testosterone-fueled teaching methods, starts to make a difference in the kid's life. Other bullied social outcasts follow and join, and as Cobra Kai grows, so too does Daniel's desire to get rid of it.

Daniel's obsession with vanquishing the dojo is perplexing to his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), as they're running an extremely profitable business, while enjoying a life of luxury in the valley raising their teen daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser) and bratty young son, Anthony (Griffin Santopietro). But even content in middle-age, there's something about Johnny and Cobra Kai that still gets to him, And even with his karate taking a backseat in life following Mr. Miyagi's passing, he's willing to do whatever it takes to make sure they disappear for good.

William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence
It would be entirely too obvious if the writers chose to simply reverse the two major roles, making Johnny some kind of a hero while Daniel's evolved into an egotistical bully. Not only wouldn't it be true to the original characters, it would make for a predictable, uninspired narrative. So wisely, the series presents middle-aged Johnny as just as big an asshole as we remember, if not more so since he now seems completely out of touch with the present-day world in which he lives.

Everyone loved to hate Johnny because he was one of those ridiculously classic, over-the-top 80's movie villains (similar to Biff from Back to the Future) who had to be the best athlete, go out with the prettiest, most popular girl, drive the hottest car, while making sure to find time to let all the "losers" know who's boss. After getting his comeuppance at the hands of Daniel and even experiencing somewhat of a redemption at the end of the first film, it makes sense that Johnny, whose entire existence was built on winning, would still be licking his wounds from the loss to Daniel decades later.

That Johnny would be living alone surrounded by garbage and empty beer cans, still driving the same car, blasting Guns n' Roses and watching Iron Eagle on his VCR as he yearns for his high school glory days was practically a given. Or that he'd also be a deadbeat dad to his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and living in a literal and emotional man cave for most of his adult life.

Johnny rallies the troops
If this is exactly where we envisioned the Johnny character would be in 2018, him attempting to crawl out of the hole he's dug himself and interact with the rest of society represents the series is at its most darkly comical, with Sensei Lawrence attempting to instill the Cobra virtues of striking hard and striking first into a ragtag group of misfit nerds he would have likely spent his entire childhood tormenting. And so begins his redemption.

Seeing the angry, bitter Johnny attempt to function in a politically correct landscape where everyone is used to getting a participation trophy is priceless, allowing Zabka to go to comedic places as an actor that few thought he'd ever be afforded the opportunity to explore outside of a guest spot or viral video. Whether he's reacting to cyberbullying, ordering these kids to punch each other in the face, or telling a student on the autism spectrum to "get off it," we couldn't expect any less from Johnny, nor would we want to.

Johnny and Miguel
Zabka is terrific, and when he needs to get serious, he's even better, showing that as aggressive and downright dangerous as some of Johnny's tactics are, a real connection is being made with his star pupil, Miguel, whose confidence and ability seems to grow with each session. And Johnny seems to form a bond with him he never could with his real son, Robby, due to his various screw-ups through the years.

Sensei Lawrence will never be another Mr. Miyagi, extolling the virtues of "wax on, wax off,"  but he isn't exactly his sadistic former mentor John Kreese (Martin Kove), either. And even if he definitely needs to dial it back and is still a jerk clinging to sexist, racist attitudes, there may be something to his belief that these kids are being coddled to their detriment, providing yet another intriguing discussion point that stems from continuing the story decades later.

Now a father and prominent pillar in the community, Daniel LaRusso takes Cobra Kai's return as personally as possible, as if it's again contaminating the cozy world he's worked hard to create for himself, and has rightfully earned. But there's just this small hint of condescension in his interactions with Johnny and an insecurity that stems from his high school days that rears its head whenever their paths cross. He's still the same great guy, as a sub-plot involving his training of a new LaRusso Auto Group employee conveys, but his worst tendencies emerge when Johnny walks into his showroom.

Miguel wears a familiar costume in Ep. 1.3, "Esqueleto"
Daniel may still be noble, but he's not perfect, and can't really handle the fact his daughter Sam may no longer want to be "daddy's little girl," seemingly having outgrown karate and maybe even her own father. She's also a good kid who's temporarily fallen in with a questionable crowd, as the series becomes as much about her and Miguel, and the risk they'll both become collateral damage in a feud between two middle-aged men reliving their high school feud. Despite the Cobra Kai affiliation, Miguel's set up pretty early on as the heir apparent to Daniel's throne, only trained by his nemesis. But how will Sam prepare her dad for the news that the most important person in her life is a Cobra?

One of the core ideas of this series, that we never truly escape who we were in high school, is exemplified in Macchio's performance, which digs a few layers deeper the further he's removed from the protagonist role. Like Zabka, he also gets to demonstrate a playful self-awareness that has a lot to say about those who may have peaked or crashed in their youth and now spending their adult life sorting out the repercussions. 

Many sequels and reboots have failed by either using the original characters as doormats to introduce the next generation or relegating the fresh faces to the sidelines to bask in cheesy nostalgia, simultaneously alienating both younger and older fans. While properties like Star Wars have faced justifiable criticism for this, Cobra Kai represents the most organic transition thus far, crafting a new story that bridges the generations, with neither getting the short end of the stick.

Mary Mouser as Samantha Larusso
It helps considerably that Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser and Tanner Buchanan are all instantly likable in roles that serve wildly different, but equally impactful functions. In some ways, they've all inherited the mess that is Daniel and Johnny's 1984's All-Valley Karate Championship Finals, but are nonetheless trying forge their own paths.

While the series does many little things right (like Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson's faithful, modern-day tribute to Bill Conti's 1984 score) the biggest elephant in the room was always going to be Mr. Miyagi's absence. But as it turns out, he isn't missed since the narrative goes to such great lengths to convey he hasn't gone anywhere at all, his lessons still guiding Daniel, even as a middle-aged father.

The moving Pat Morita-dedicated fifth episode, "Counterbalance," sees Daniel taking a much needed trip to Myagi's grave for guidance and reflection. And it's something he needs more than ever given the sudden regression he's undergone since Cobra Kai's surge in popularity. When he makes the decision to positively channel that energy into reincorporating karate into his life, it's the decision to mentor a new pupil that refocuses the character, making for quite the moment when Daniel puts on the classic lotus headband again.

Daniel suits up.
Luckily for us, it's clear Johnny and Daniel could never really be "friends," but the closest they get to begrudgingly reaching some kind of common ground comes in the season's best episode, "Different But Same," as simmering tensions between the two finally reach their boiling point, culminating in the realization they may have had more in common than they thought. It definitely isn't a truce, but rather a reluctant acknowledgement they'll have to somehow co-exist and tolerate each other because this time it isn't only about them.

There's a limitless well of fascination in watching these rivals view their history together in entirely different ways, with each casting the other as the villain. Johnny has a scene with Miguel explaining his feud with Daniel that's interspersed with selectively narrated and edited flashbacks hilarious enough to be mistaken for the many viral videos and clips that partially inspired the idea for this series. Except this time it's actually coming from the character, who Zabka rightly plays as completely lacking in any self-awareness.

The decision to flash back to Johnny's childhood and provide glimpses into what turned him into Daniel's adolescent tormentor should have been a disaster. But like everything else here, it succeeds in adding dimensions to a character everyone previously enjoyed on a superficial level, but really knew little about.

A young Johnny peeks into his future
Without unnecessarily dwelling on it or overexplaining the obvious, the scenes fill in valuable blanks of what brought a young Johnny to Cobra Kai, and why that complicated history makes it difficult for him to reconcile what eventually occurs in the season's finale climactic showdown ("Mercy") that again puts them on opposing sides, albeit in an entirely different capacity. And when Johnny's faced with the true cost of his behavior, we start to wonder if Daniel was right, and it is truly too late for him and Cobra Kai to ever change.

Unlike its 1984 theatrical predecessor, this isn't a sports story about the underdog overcoming the odds, instead operating in a much greyer moral area. By comically acknowledging the differences between then and now, and how its affected these characters, they're able to add this entire extra layer that works as more than just a meta-commentary.

Daniel and Miyagi
Actors are infrequently afforded the opportunity to reassess their iconic roles years later manage to actively improve upon them. This is especially true of Zabka, who not only challenges perceptions of the character that typecast him as an actor, but takes complete ownership of them. It doesn't take long into the series to place any lingering skepticism aside and recognize Cobra Kai works as far more than a nostalgia cash-in, naturally extending a story we didn't know had more to give until now. So when Daniel tells Johnny that it's never going to be over between them, we not only believe him, but honestly hope he's right.