Cobra Kai is one of the most compelling and richly layered series on television, and that’s probably going to be hard for anyone who hasn’t seen it to understand. On the surface, it sounds like a novelty series designed to appeal to ’80s nostalgia, and there’s definitely some of that inherent in the series. It’s also important to have seen the original Karate Kid movie and at least have a passing familiarity with Karate Kid II (skimming Wikipedia is sufficient because no one really wants to sit through Karate Kid II). It’s not that it wouldn’t be easy to understand Cobra Kai without the knowledge of the original, it’s that it deepens the emotional complexity of Cobra Kai to know that the animosities between Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) have been stewing for 35 years.
The first season of Cobra Kai is largely a redemption story for Johnny Lawrence, and it is one that is surprisingly easy to buy into. Yes, he was a bullying jerk in high school, but it came from a place of insecurity, and it was encouraged by his ruthless asshole of a sensei John Kreese, who basically exploited the fact that Johnny didn’t have a father in his life. Kreese provided the father figure that Johnny so badly wanted, and Kreese basically brainwashed him with all of this “No Mercy” bullshit.
In season one, Johnny has basically hit a dead end in his life when he sees a kid, Miguel Diaz, from his apartment complex being bullied. Miguel is very much a Daniel LaRusso type: Optimistic and kind, but often shat upon. Johnny decides to train him in the ways of the Cobra Kai so that he can fight back, but he modifies Cobra Kai to make it more humane: Strike first, strike hard, but show mercy where necessary and don’t be a total asshole. Johnny is still kind of a dick, and he still lives in the ’80s, but he’s fundamentally a good person. He starts his own karate dojo and ends up essentially rescuing a lot of high school kids from their tormenters, boosts their confidence, and finds purpose in giving them purpose.
What’s so fascinating about Cobra Kai is the way in which it redeems Johnny, but it doesn’t do so at the expense of Daniel. Daniel is still Daniel. He’s a good guy with a great family, but seeing Johnny restart Cobra Kai brings out his competitive streak. He starts his own dojo, too, beginning with his protege, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who just happens to be Johnny’s estranged son. In other words, Johnny is training a Daniel type, and Daniel is training a Johnny type, and both philosophies seem perfectly suited to their respective proteges. The series essentially pits two underdogs against each other.
But while Daniel and Johnny are both fundamentally good people, there’s still a lot of animosity simmering between the two. While they don’t share a lot of scenes, when they do it feels a little like Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. There’s just so much history — losing that match to Daniel in high school basically derailed Johnny’s life, while winning it basically set Daniel on a successful path — and it almost feels like if the two of them could just sit down and really talk to each other, both could probably end up being great friends and perfect complements to one another. But there’s too much baggage from the past for them to be able to get to that point.
Season 2 brings in a new dynamic: John Creese (Martin Kove) returns, and he’s interested in partnering with Johnny on Cobra Kai. But the thing about Kreese is, he hasn’t changed. But Johnny — who feels like he got a second chance in life — wants to give that second chance to Creese, too. And it’s easier than you think to empathize with that sentiment: Everyone deserves a second chance, right? Maybe not Kreese. Not everyone can change. What happens is, the Cobra Kai students begin to feel the influence of Kreese, and they take that out on Daniel’s students, much to the dismay of both Daniel and Johnny. And again, it feels like if Daniel and Johnny could just work together, they’d be able to form an incredible alliance against Kreese. But Daniel doesn’t trust Johnny. And Johnny has too much pride.
All of this gets mixed up in a big ball of conflicting emotions for the viewer, and it’s really what makes Cobra Kai so compelling. The stunt work is cool. It’s fun to see ‘these characters again, and both actors — who themselves have been defined by Karate Kid — ease right back into these roles. It’s impossible not to want to root for both of them at all times, but also root for the kids they are training. It’s not black-and-white like Karate Kid was. It’s more in the vein of Friday Night Lights — there are a few bad eggs, but for the most part, it’s good people trying to make good decisions, but the extra layer here is that these good people are also standing in each others’ way.
It is an emotionally rich series, but it’s also super fun to watch. It’s insanely addictive — I watched season one in one night last year, and season two in one night this year. It’s also almost impossible to turn off, and it’s not because of twisting and turning storylines. It’s because, as viewers, we are anxious to see everything work out for these characters. We want good things for them. I won’t spoil the end of season two, except to say that it is crushing and that had YouTube not renewed the show for a third season, I would’ve made it my life’s mission to bankrupt the streaming platform.
Thankfully, even though Premium YouTube has basically given up on original programming, they have decided to move ahead with another season of this. The good news is, Cobra Kai and YouTube’s other original programming will soon be added to free YouTube, so that everyone can watch Cobra Kai without a subscription. And everyone should because it is wonderful.
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