There aren’t many shows that you could credit a bit in How I Met Your Mother for their creation. Yet, that is hard to ignore when it comes to the case of Cobra Kai. In HIMYM season eight episode ‘The Bro Mitzvah’, Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney is disappointed when meeting original Karate Kid actor Ralph Macchio at his bachelor party, as he has always considerd Johnny Lawrence (the high school bully played by WIlliam Zabka) as the true hero of the story. Cut to five years later to 2018 where the world was first introduced to Cobra Kai, the YouTube Original series that acts as a legacy sequel to the original The Karate Kid trilogy, which treats both Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence as the hero and villain of their respective stories.
Cobra Kai picks up 34 years after the events of the original Karate Kid. Former Cobra Kai student Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) is washed up and broke, living in a crappy apartment on a diet of baloney and beer, doing odd handyman jobs to get by, all the while attempting to repair a relationship with his estranged osn, Robbie (Tanner Buchanan). Daniel LaRusso (Macchio), however, is doing great. He owns one of the most successful car dealerships in the San Fernando Valley, has a beautiful wife (Courtney Henggler), a teenage daughter (Mary Mouser) and young son (Griffin Santopietro). But both have let karate go from their lives.
In an attempt to recapture that swagger and confidence that he had in the 80’s, Johnny decdies to put all the money he has in to be brigning back his old dojo, Cobra Kai, to the valley. When Daniel finds out what his old high school bully is up to, their old feud is once again rekindle, as Lawrence and LaRusso begin teaching a new generation of karate kids.
Before we get into this, you should know from the off that this particular writer is quite a fan of the original Karate Kid movies, with the first one in particular standing out as a childhood favourite. So, when it comes to Cobra Kai, it was probably always going to be easy to please me. That being said though, Cobra Kai the series is still much better than it has any right to be. Through a combination of an irreverant approach to franchise iconography and sincerely written characters with fully formed arcs and believable relationships, Cobra Kai makes for a very funny and very engaging drama.
Season one, the stronger of the two seasons, thrives on the strenght of its hook and the element of surprise. There’s something inherently intriguging about lifting the hood on the figure of an 80’s high school bully, and the writers and William Zabka really thrive on fleshing ouit the charatcer of Johnny Lawrence. He’s a guy so hooked on his glory days of the 80’s that even his sex dreams look like they’ve been shot by Tony Scott. He’s still driving the same car, has the same tape deck, and is very cut off from the modern world. Despite the aggressive and emotionally abusive teachings of his sensai John Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny reverts back to his 80’s heyday with a desire to open up Cobra Kai coming across as his only option to feel some kind of signifcance again.
His grand scheme, to make karate and Cobra Kai the most badass way of life for teens of the valley once again, doesn’t quite go to plan. In the show’s smartest move, Cobra Kai becomes a place not for jocks and popular kids, but for the outcasts, nerds and geeks who need a little empowering and confidence. All that starts with Johnny’s first student, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), the new kid in town who is instantly targeted by a group of rich valley boy bullies on arrival. Johnny teaching the character who most echoes LaRusso’s arc in the original film has an irony that is more subtly played than you’d expect, and all the more rewarding as Johnny and Miguel strike up an easy going bond where both of them help each other out. Through Miguel and the other kids who end up joining Cobra Kai, Johnny slowly starts to realise that his world view needs a shake up, and that he needs to grow up.
It’s hard for that world view to have a shake up though when the looming presence of Daniel LaRusso keeps reminding him of his past, and drives both men to juvenile behaviour. The reemergence of Cobra Kai in the valley sends Daniel into his own mid-life crisis, as he feels threatened by the memory of what the old Cobra Kai did to his childhood. As such, the two men are quite petty with each other, hatching revenge schemes that wouldn’t be out of a place in an 80’s teen drama. It takes more grounded, grown-up characters like Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler, the most hilarious cast member and MVP of the series) to remind Daniel and Johnny that it’s not the 80’s anymore, and these schemes can have real world consequences. Even as the two men do start to find that they have more in common than they initially thought, both of their stubborn personalities stop them from finding a common ground. That tension becomes all the more complicated moving into season two, as the consequences of Johnny and Daniel’s behaviour starts ramping up to disastrous effect, exacerbated with the arrival of the more aggressively minded founder of Cobra Kai, John Kreese.
If season one is about finding a path, then season two is more about the loss of control. With Johnny and Kreese continuing to build Cobra Kai (and Kreese leading it astray) and Daniel trying to promote the less aggressive karate of Miyagi-Do, Season Two is more about the mounting tensions between the old high school foes, and how their conflict affects the lives of the kids they are trying to teach. All that comes to quite a dramatic and more over the top finale as we await season three, with season two playing the drama in a more straight forward fashion. As a result, season two loses some of the surprising nuance of season one, but does maintain your interest through strong performances and attachment to characters established in the first season. It also helps that the actual karate kicks up a gear in the second season, with the fight scenes proving to be very well executed and choreographed, with a lot of the young cast clearly putting in the effort to do a lot of their own fighting.
Both seasons very much have the Cobra Kai mantra front and centre: ‘Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.’ It unpacks that mantra in a lot of ways, initially exploring how empowering and powerful such a belief system can have on a lot of aspects of these kids lives, helping them overcome insecurities and find a confidence that that didn’t know they had. But it soon becomes clear that the show is more about allowing Johnny to realise the fundamental flaws of a belief system that calls for no mercy, and at times that lesson comes packaged in a rude awakening (particularly in the frantic finale of season two). For Daniel, much of his arc focuses on how his hot headed nature can’t help but disrupt the balance that he preaches. It’s a show as much about teen drama as it is the struggles of two men in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Both narrative stands prove to be engaging thanks to a great cast of young actors and the dedication of Macchio and Zabka to explore their most famous characters through a story that treats them like human beings, not just 80’s movie archetypes.
In an age where we see plenty of old intellectual properties being rebooted and retooled for new audiences to varying degres of success, it’s refreshing to see one that is aware of the inherent silliness of the franchise it is a part of, but is also very much in love with the characters and story it is telling. It pokes fun at some of the iconography of The Karate Kid seires, but also has its heart in the right place with fan tailored moments that serve the story first (seeing Daniel suit up in his gi to the Bill Conti fanfare from the original is organic to the story and goosebump inducing). Cobra Kai is quite simply one of the best legacy sequels to come out in recent years, and one of the stronger TV shows at that, effectively combinbing franchise familarisation with engaging, incredibly well-rounded characters. May Cobra Kai never die.
Scr: Various, created by Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Robert Mark Kamen
Cast: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Xolo Maridueña, Courtney Henggeler, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove, Peyton List
Prd: Katrin L. Goodson, Bob Wilson
DOP: Cameron Duncan
Music: Leo Birenberg, Zach Robinson
Country: United States
Run time: 571 minutes
Cobra Kai: Season One & Two are out now on DVD.