In 1984, “The Karate Kid” was just the type of joyful, by-the-numbers underdog story that was a product of its time. YouTube Red’s sequel series “Cobra Kai” somehow channels that ‘80s vibe even though it’s set 34 years later. It’s as if the characters from the original film had woken up from a cryogenic freeze after three decades to find that their mindsets remained the same, but their bodies continued to age.
Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), was basically the Draco Malfoy of the ‘80s karate scene in Los Angeles but is now a drunk has-been who suddenly finds himself out of work. Naturally, he can’t help but resent his former rival, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who is living large as a big-time auto dealer in the Valley.
Johnny comes into some money and opens up a Cobra Kai dojo in Reseda in order to teach the neighbor kid Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) and other high school students karate. It’s poetic justice – the guy who was once the ultimate bully is now teaching the picked-upon and marginalized to fight back against their tormentors. Johnny hasn’t mellowed over time though, and his ruthless instruction style and backward attitude threaten to derail his path to redemption. And so does Daniel, who will forever distrust the Cobra Kai name and all it stands for.
Since the series is 10 episodes of approximately 30 minutes each, the storyline has to regress periodically lest the series reach its finale at the big All Valley Karate Championship too soon. “Cobra Kai” is comfortably predictable to the point where most of the plot points are telegraphed long before they happen. Whenever Johnny achieves a personal victory, inevitably a misunderstanding, personal failing, or bruised ego sets him back. After unconventional training methods, the proteges take on and triumph over bullies. A love triangle occurs. Dirty tricks and a crazy karate move are employed at the karate championship. (No, it’s not the crane kick, but it does make an appearance.)
Creators and showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg cross the line from homage to full-on mimicry in continuing “The Karate Kid” saga. Footage from the original film is used frequently to provide exposition and continuity. And because of this, the parallels are blatantly apparent. While the sensei-student dynamic is revisited twice over (Daniel also gets his own karate protege), no one can match the warm fuzzies brought on by the peerless Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi opposite Macchio in the ’80s.
This may be for the best because Johnny is a wholly new and refreshing element in this universe as an oppressor who’s learning his lesson but is not typically aspirational. The crass blowhard doesn’t make a quick 180 to atone for his past sins; rather, he reluctantly meanders to a 90-degree turn, still poised midway between abusive and sympathetic. Everyone knows someone like Johnny who is politically incorrect and offensive, and yet is just a regular guy.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the series is its occasional self-awareness. Smaller, subversive moments build to create a picture of two men who can’t let go of the past. Daniel is still trading off of his championship rep by using cringeworthy karate puns in his car commercials, and Johnny is distressingly clueless about anything involving the Internet. Both Zabka and Macchio rise to the challenge of allowing themselves to look vulnerable, silly, and totally clueless at times.
“Cobra Kai” is at its most problematic when the attitudes of its backward characters seem to have influenced the series. Sure, Johnny can be sexist, but the show appears to follow suit and sidelines Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser). Although she also knows karate, she’s relegated to the roles of love interest and rebellious teenage daughter. It’s likely she’ll get a chance to prove herself if the show continues – check back for IndieWire’s thoughts on a possible Season 2 – but until that happens, she’s been wasted. Also weirdly sexist is a female student using the word “pussy” unironically and pejoratively. When Miguel points out that such terms are genderizing, he’s mocked and dismissed.
The series also manages to be even more orientalist than the original film, which already used karate and other Japanese trappings as exotic secret weapons that gave Daniel the leg up (so to speak) on the competition. But at least back then, Mr. Miyagi was around to be the ambassador of such Asian things. Now, having Daniel wax poetic about bonsai cultivation or slicing sashimi smacks of white-splaining. (Although, it should be noted that the latter conversation results in an amusing upending of expectations.) And while we might be able to forgive a character for being so earnestly tone deaf, the show utilizes a frequent and mortifying leitmotif in the vaguely Asian-sounding notes that play every time Daniel enters his homemade dojo.
Casting is probably a trickier situation. The two stars were already grandfathered into the narrative, but that means you have two white guys teaching karate since Mr. Miyagi (and actor Pat Morita) died. Those optics aren’t great. Instead, the show makes a token effort at some diversity and succeeds the most with the character Miguel and his family, and marginally with the black student Aisha (Nichole Brown). Given the makeup of the population in the San Fernando Valley, the casting should be far more inclusive, especially in the main roles.
The only Asian character is basically the new Johnny, a cocky high school bully, who at least is the opposite of the model minority/geek stereotype. And while it’s also a stereotype that Asians know karate, it feels like “Cobra Kai” (and the new Netflix series “The New Legends of Monkey”) is trying to overcorrect to the point of going out of its way to avoid having an Asian perform martial arts on screen.
All that said, the energetic if not terribly sophisticated martial arts choreography is entertaining, and a fight sequence that takes place in the school cafeteria is fun in a completely unrealistic way. Perhaps because of its throwback vibe, “Cobra Kai” is able to get away with some of its more problematic issues. The series should appeal to savvy teens who delight in mildly transgressive content and to those nursing their nostalgia like Daniel and Johnny do.
”Cobra Kai” Season 1 is available to stream on YouTube Red. The first two episodes are available to watch for free below: