It takes a lot for me to fall for a TV show in the year 2018. Another “must-watch” seems to air on a weekly basis, and these days I rarely even get curious about them. The shows pile up endlessly, taunting me with beloved actors and intriguing premises. Premieres and finales roll past in endless succession, briefly reminding me of a time long past when I thought “hm, that looks good, I should watch it.” But there’s never enough time, and there are far too many shows that too many people assure me are very good.
Against all odds, my favorite show of 2018 isn’t a depressing prestige drama on HBO or an irreverent network sitcom that lets me forget about my worries for 21 minutes. It’s Cobra Kai, the rebooted Karate Kid show from YouTube’s paid subscription service. How did this even happen?
Although I watched and liked the original Karate Kid as a child I never had a particularly strong attachment to it. I’m nostalgic for a lot of stuff, just not this. The lackluster 2010 reboot starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith seemed to be the final word on the franchise, and though it wasn’t awful it certainly didn’t recapture the original’s popularity either. If anyone over the last decade was clamoring for more Karate Kid, I wasn’t aware of it.
Early ads didn’t sell the show much beyond its basic premise, but the premise was solid and intriguing enough to put it on people’s radar. Cobra Kai picks up in real time, over thirty years after the events the original film. The core dynamic established and repeated in the early movies has been flipped, with former Cobra Kai Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) teaching Karate to a bullied teen in his apartment complex named Miguel (breakout star Xolo Maridueña). Meanwhile, once-Karate-Kid-turned-Karate-Adult Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) owns a successful car dealership that trades on his minor local celebrity as a Karate champ (and a free bonsai tree for every customer). As Daniel and Johnny’s paths cross, history begins to repeat itself, and what was once a classic tale of revenge-against-bullies-via-Karate takes on a more mature and morally ambiguous dimension.
All this sounds pretty good, like an elevator pitch for something that I would think about watching, but it fails to adequately convey just how impressive Cobra Kai is in practice.
There are a few secret weapons that elevate Cobra Kai from “very good” to “classic” in my book. The first would be the main performances from Zabka and Macchio. Having seen this it becomes impossible to imagine other actors taking over their roles. There is a lived-in quality to their portrayals that remains true to the original films while also pushing the characters in exciting new directions. The show doesn’t waste much time catching you up with the characters’ histories, but what it shows you tells a compelling story of how each one was affected by the fateful All Valley Karate Championship of 1984.
Another important flavor in this show’s recipe is the new cast. I mentioned Xolo Maridueña’s star-making turn as Miguel, but he’s only one of a whole new generation of Karate Kids, such as the delinquent Robby (Tanner Buchanan), the impressionable Samantha (Mary Mouser), the social outcasts Eli, Demetri and Aisha (Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo and Nichole Brown), and of course an effortlessly-hateable bully named Kyler (Joe Seo), plus too many other talented young actors to list here.
This brings us to the writing. While The Karate Kid mostly hinged its plot on the axis of Daniel and Johnny’s conflict, expanding the story to include this many teens has the effect of deepening and reinforcing the show’s thematic focus. Each of the young actors manifest an aspect of the original conflict, and spreading them out allows for surprising storytelling as they bounce off each other in ways Johnny and Daniel never could. Even as Cobra Kai echoes plot beats of the original Karate Kid, it manages to reinterpret them in surprising ways through its new cast.
But the real secret weapon, the crane kick to the face of this show, is its incredible respect for and understanding of the source material.
Earlier I flippantly described The Karate Kid as a “tale of revenge-against-bullies-via-Karate” (with a bit of the Magical Asian cliche thrown in there), and for a long time this was how I understood it, but I was wrong. That summary may seem true on its surface, but it’s not really what The Karate Kid is about, and it took Cobra Kai to make me realize it.
Rewatching The Karate Kid as an adult I am dumbfounded by how much smarter and more interesting it was than I once gave it credit for. First, there’s Daniel, a sympathetic victim of bullying, sure, but also a lonely, angry young man without a father figure in his life. Moving from New Jersey to California with his single working mother (Randee Heller) has uprooted his social life, and when he finally makes a connection with local girl Ali (Elisabeth Shue), he inadvertently becomes a target for Cobra Kai and Johnny’s bullying.
But then there’s Miyagi, the true breakout star of the film and an iconic role for actor Pat Morita (1932-2005). Although he seems to fit a template of “wise old master who shows a white kid how extra-special he really is,” it’s incredibly reductive to think of him that way. Morita’s performance is wonderfully subtle, and as he reveals more of his past to Daniel we are shown that behind his quiet and genial persona is a proud man who has been beaten down by many tragedies, yet refuses to let them define him. His insistence that Daniel focus on the seemingly mundane tasks around him (“Wax on, wax off”) isn’t just an arcane bit of Eastern wisdom to help Daniel fight better, but how Miyagi himself has learned to be at peace with a cruel and unfair world. He implores Daniel not to think of Karate as a tool to defeat his enemies, but a way to attain balance and harmony within himself.
Only Cobra Kai stands in his way.
In Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese (played with expert menace by Martin Kove) and his star pupil Johnny, we see a dark reflection of Miyagi and Daniel’s relationship. Kreese has taught his students the credo “strike first, strike hard, no mercy,” so when Miyagi attempts to reconcile the conflict between Daniel and Johnny peacefully, Kreese doubles down on his student’s violent behavior. For Cobra Kai, Karate is how you gain respect and enforce your will over others, therefore Johnny’s bullying is merely Kreese’s philosophy in action. “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher” opines Miyagi. These aren’t just differing philosophies on how to do Karate, they’re vastly important questions of how to live ones’ life. Cobra Kai is deeply interested in how these lessons have shaped the lives of Daniel and Johnny.
We all know how this plays out: Daniel overcomes an injury and Kreese’s underhanded tactics (“Sweep the leg”) to defeat Johnny, landing an impressive, impractical and illegal crane kick to the face and winning the day. The crowd cheers while Johnny lies sprawled on the mat.
Cut to 34 years later...
I hope you enjoyed this long-winded piece, and I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about this show, the movies, or anything really. I know I didn’t talk about the other Karate Kid sequels much because I only watched the first one. If I ever get around to it I might write another TAY-V Club post, but anyone should feel free to use that super clever tag on their own article. Thanks for reading! -pocoGRANDES