The 1980s gave us a lot of great stuff, big cheesy hairdos aside, and one standout of the decade’s enduring contributions to pop culture (and dare I say, building character?) is undeniably The Karate Kid.
If, like How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, you believe that it was antagonistic Cobra Kai student Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) who was the film’s true “karate kid”, and not underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), then the first few episodes of Cobra Kai sure lend a lot of credibility to that notion.
This 34-years-later continuation of the movie picks up its story threads from Johnny’s viewpoint. He is struggling to get by, his teenage son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) regards him as a failure – as does almost everyone in his life – and he just can’t move past that turning point in his life.
Even if you don’t remember that critical moment, the series wastes little time reminding us how an injured Daniel, quietly encouraged by his sensei Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita), beat an overconfident Johnny in the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament final.
To make things worse, Johnny is constantly bombarded with reminders of Daniel’s successful car dealership, and the early direction of the series seems to paint the LaRussos – Daniel, his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), teenage daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and bratty son Anthony (Griffin Santopietro) – as a bit on the entitled and snooty side.
That changes somewhat as circumstances soon put Johnny and Daniel’s paths on a new collision course, but that is also not the only thing Cobra Kai is about.
The core relationship here is that of Johnny and his new neighbour Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), a shy teenager who is constantly bullied at school.
It not only resembles Daniel and Miyagi’s connection, but is also a brighter reflection of Johnny’s own time under Kreese (Martin Kove), the merciless and brutal sensei of the old Cobra Kai.
So, not a spoiler: Johnny reopens the Cobra Kai dojo. How could you have a series titled Cobra Kai if he didn’t?
But it leads to some interesting questions: can a well-intentioned teacher provide his student with a solid foundation if his own learning was fundamentally flawed, even toxic? And what of an earnest student who had a genuine teacher: can he now, in the role of sensei, mould a damaged, embittered individual into an honourable person?
The beauty of Cobra Kai – part of what has made it such a smash hit from its debut on the YouTube Red premium channel and now on Netflix – is the way it constantly shifts the ground under its characters and consequently, the viewer as well.
As our perspective changes, so too do our reactions vary as bullies receive painful comeuppances; some former victims of bullying choose not to show grace in embracing their newfound skills; good intentions go awry in the worst possible ways; and small victories are achieved not so much by design but serendipity.
It sometimes feels like one of those initially baffling lessons doled out by Daniel’s late and deeply missed sensei, whose influence is felt strongly throughout.
Ultimately, though, it helps Cobra Kai achieve one of Mr Miyagi’s most important teachings: about finding internal balance.
And, in doing so, it allows the viewer to form balanced perceptions of its numerous characters, to appreciate their struggles – well, most of them, anyway – and realise that, like us, they are also works in progress.
Zabka and Macchio are undoubtedly the linchpins of the great ensemble cast, easily falling back into the rhythm and intensity of their old rivalry without missing a step.
Again, though, if they were the show’s sole draw, Cobra Kai would be left struggling to find acceptance among the ranks of anyone below (or not pushing) 50.
But to showrunners Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald’s collective credit (they also wrote, plotted or directed much of the series), they have managed to deftly weave teen/high-school drama into the fabric of Cobra Kai in a way that will not grate on older viewers’ nerves.
The end result is something that appeals to both old-timers on a nostalgia trip and younger audiences seeking something fresh and relatable.
Furthermore, the now multi-generational saga of Cobra Kai vs Miyagi-Do (come on, it’s also inevitable that Daniel starts up his old teacher’s school) takes on the air of a timeless, near-mythical conflict as well. To complement the sharp writing and excellent performances, Cobra Kai also takes its karate sequences seriously. The action is convincing without being too seamlessly choreographed, confrontations have consequences, and horrific things happen when combatants lose restraint.
All told, Cobra Kai is a series that works on many levels – and clearly because of a deep and abiding love for its source, which now has a clearer and much richer legacy than its uneven movie sequels.
Seasons One and Two of Cobra Kai are available on Netflix.
“If come from inside you, always right one.”