Though we would have much preferred to dub this discussion of the new YouTube Red series, Cobra Kai, a “Roundhousetable,” we didn’t have enough participants available to attend a Fathom Events advanced screening on a weeknight. But the series premiere, which was screened at select theaters nationwide last week via Fathom Events, did spark an energetic albeit entirely above-the-belt Crosstalk among two of our staffers. With the complete first season dropping on YouTube Red today, we asked ourselves: Does Cobra Kai sweep the leg of our doubts, or is it already down for the count?
Danette Chavez: As we’ve observed on multiple occasions on this site, the prospect of a beloved pop-culture property from our past getting a reboot, revival, spin-off, or sequel is a question of when, not if—at least, as long as nostalgia remains profitable. And yet, the news that Ralph Macchio was reprising the role of Daniel LaRusso, the Jersey kid turned All-Valley karate champion, in YouTube’s Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, still seemed more than a little out there. Don’t get me wrong, I was a big fan of the movies growing up, and might have even crane-kicked a kid during recess (an illegal move, I know). And the baby-faced Macchio has matured as an actor, turning in a great performance as a seedy cop (one of many, really) in David Simon’s The Deuce. But how could Macchio or any of the Cobra Kai showrunners—Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg—hope to recapture the plucky spirit of the original franchise, especially now that Daniel’s a middle-aged man? What’s to stop Cobra Kai from becoming something like The Benchwarmers, all painfully unfunny arrested development and faded glory?
These are questions the show asks of itself in the two episodes we’ve watched so far. (And may I say, Alex, I appreciate you joining me in a big-screen experience of what is ultimately a second-screen series on a blustery spring night in Chicago.) Instead of simply positioning Daniel as the underdog once more, Cobra Kai presents him as a successful businessman—although I have to wonder how some amateur karate could lead to multiple car dealerships—who nonetheless can’t quite let go of his bullied past. The series also gives us new underdogs in the form of a young teen (Xolo Maridueña as Miguel), and, more surprisingly, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). The disgraced former Cobra Kai student is now a struggling contractor who throws out casually racist remarks. It’s a role reversal, for sure, but it’s a damn effective one.
What was your first impression of Daniel and Johnny’s latest bout, Alex?
Alex McLevy: When you proposed going to the movies to watch two episodes of a forthcoming YouTube Red series that’s a rehash of a faded ’80s film, Danette, my first thought was, “God, that sounds like slow death.” So the main thing that startled me about the experience was... I didn’t hate it?
Honestly, I was pretty skeptical about doing a 21st century return to the lives of two men whose entire conflict was a high-school karate tournament. But Cobra Kai left me curious to see more. First of all, I was impressed by the willingness of the show—and especially the first episode—to make Zabka’s Johnny the protagonist, yet simultaneously paint him as a stereotypical middle-aged douche. In other words, he’s basically a well-intentioned asshole. He’s not so much an antihero as he is a disagreeable cur who gets put through the standard paces of the hero’s journey. He’s fallen from grace: He never sees his son, lives alone in a crumbling apartment where he drinks himself to sleep every night, and continually relives his glory days of youth in his head, wondering where it all went so wrong. Then we get the moment where he sticks up for a bullied teen, beating down the assholes who try to kick the shit out of him, and the redemption arc begins.
Yet as you rightly note, he’s a sexist, racist jerk who tries to reintroduce outdated concepts of masculinity and corporal punishment as some sort of noble endeavor. And while his young protege Miguel—the kid he protected, who turns to him to learn karate, à la Macchio and Pat Morita in the original film—will often quietly note Johnny’s idiocy (after a rant about today’s coddled youth, with their “asthmas” and “nut allergies,” a character responds, “Those are all really serious conditions”) the show has yet to judge him for it. There are times it feels like a comedy version of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down, which is an unusual target. Did you notice this odd tone as well?
DC: I did pick up on the William Foster parallels, but more than anything, Cobra Kai comes across as a subverted fairy tale. The first three films (as well as the fourth installment that saw Hilary Swank take over as a cross between Daniel and Johnny) were basically the stuff of goodhearted fables (also, Rocky for teens). A mystical figure leads a scrappy kid on the path to self-confidence and victory—only Daniel and Mr. Miyagi were slaying cobras, not dragons. We don’t question the righteousness of their quest, because of the archetypes: Johnny’s the bully, the Gaston, while Daniel’s the—well, not quite the Beast, since he more closely resembles Lumière, but you get where I’m going with this.
But in the decades since Daniel nabbed his final All-Valley title, there’s been some discussion about just how noble a figure he is. Okay, so said discourse is actually just a joke in an episode of How I Met Your Mother and this YouTube video, but Cobra Kai takes it further, and explores what it’s like to pick up the pieces of your life after they’ve been crane-kicked to hell. We learn that Johnny’s defeat is hardly the only thing that’s contributed to his decline, and while that earns some sympathy for this devil, the show wisely chooses not to gloss over the toxic masculinity that fuels him to this day. He still thinks might makes right, and he’s still pouting over Daniel “moving in on his girl” (Elisabeth Shue as Ali), even though they had already broken up before the Jersey kid arrived.
Early on, I struggled with the premise of middle-aged white dudes reigniting their rivalry, but while I doubt I’ll binge the first season, my interest has definitely been piqued. This isn’t just round two in Daniel and Johnny’s struggle—success has changed Daniel. He’s not as viciously cocky as Johnny, but he clearly only calls over his employees to shame Johnny a bit on the floor of one of his car dealerships. The show sometimes even frames Daniel’s fascination with Japan as a bit Orientalist—his insistence on serving tuna sashimi with his special knife to his daughter’s Asian-American suitor is downright cringe-inducing. Ditto his question about where the kid’s parents are from (but all due credit to the writers for tossing out this response: “Um, Irvine?”). Daniel’s arc isn’t one of redemption, exactly, but of tapping into his authentic, less-douchey side once more—not to mention realizing that beating up one bully might not have been enough to vanquish his insecurities.
Are you just as tempted to keep watching, Alex, or are you preparing to forfeit? And do you think Will Smith, whose production company is behind Cobra Kai, will cameo at some point?
AM: I think you captured what strangely impressed me about this series, Danette. It uses the hoary trope of two white guys rehashing the past to look semi-seriously at what it means to be a man nowadays, in ways that feel unusually honest. Neither Daniel nor Johnny are in a just-so story any more; they’re men who were raised in a certain era and culture that taught them all too well how to be men, and now they’re choking on that lesson. Daniel’s financial success has blinded him to his own faults, while Johnny’s struggles in life have led him to adopt the “oppressed white man” mentality that makes him feel righteous even when he’s clearly in the wrong. They’re flip sides of the same screwed-up coin, and Cobra Kai doesn’t pick sides between them.
That being said, the other parts of the show didn’t repel me, either. Daniel’s family life was nicely depicted, and Miguel and his friends are likable enough, if awfully one-note in this early going. I didn’t expect to be saying this, but I’ll probably eventually watch the entire first season. Not that it’s tremendously good, but it does right by its characters in such a way that I was curious what happens next. This could all fall apart pretty easily—Johnny and Daniel could fail to start learning any lessons, or the show could become too sympathetic to either of them as it progresses—but right now I like the harsh tone and unsparing assessment of misguided men stumbling into something bigger than either of them.
Danette, it’s time for your final stand: Do you want to see Johnny’s Cobra Kai dojo succeed (and have him presumably learn from the experience), or should the show condemn them via showing that resurrecting the past isn’t a recipe for evolving so much as it is a stubborn stand against change?
DC: First, I have to agree that the show does right by the other characters, like Daniel’s teenage daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser), and Miguel, who’s no mere Sancho Panza to Johnny’s Don Quixote. They’re given interiority, whether it’s Samantha poignantly dealing with peer pressure or Miguel struggling to be a decent guy in a world full of aggro-dickheads (hopefully the show will address the fact that he’s seemingly chosen the wrong mentor for that). I want to see more of how Daniel will deal with having his narrative change, especially since he so clearly believes he triumphed over the bad-but-also-broken guy, and whether Johnny will learn that there’s more in discretion and diplomacy. Overall, Cobra Kai tells a much more mature story than I expected to see as part of YouTube’s fledgling scripted-programming lineup, especially given the wish-fulfillment that inspired it, so I also believe I’ll finish out the season. At the very least, it’ll give me time to work on my “Right-Crosstalk” punchline.
Cobra Kai season one is now streaming on YouTube Red.