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|
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|
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"|
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|
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|
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|
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"|
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|
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.
|Daniel suits up.|
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.
|A young Johnny peeks into his future|
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|