You may have seen “Cobra Kai” pop up recently on Netflix and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” I cannot begin to describe how pleasantly surprised I am by a Youtube Original series sequel to “The Karate Kid,” but life is full of surprises. I hadn’t even seen the original (we were a Hilary Swank house apparently) until after I finished season 1, so don’t let that stop you. The show utilizes plenty of flashbacks and reminiscent dialogue to provide enough context.
There has been no shortage of 80s nostalgia-based media in recent years. What sets “Cobra Kai” apart from the others is its approach. Many of us recall high school as the best years of our lives, when we peaked and had everything ahead of us. But what happens when you carry that with you decades later and still allow it to consume you? Not only that, but gradually realizing that not everything you were taught or believed as a teenager might be the best approach.
The main thing you need to know about its predecessor is that in 1984’s “Karate Kid,” Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence compete against each other in a karate tournament. Johnny, the “bully” of the piece, is instructed by his super shady sensei John Kreese to use an illegal move. Daniel then wins with another illegal move. There are other complications in their rivalry, including liking the same girl, but the main grievance seems to be the events of the fight. “Cobra Kai” takes place 34 years after the film with Johnny bringing back Cobra Kai to turn his life around. Daniel is now a successful car salesman and family man, but vows to prevent the return of Cobra Kai when he founds out Johnny’s plans.
It’s a fascinating character study from Johnny’s perspective. To him, Daniel is the enemy who stole his girlfriend, title, and perfect senior year. The more research I did, the more I learned about the decades-long debate of this very notion amongst fans of the first film. What I appreciate about “Cobra Kai” is that the answer to that doesn’t matter any more. What matters is that this grudge is not only stronger than ever between the two men, but consumes both of them and affects everyone around them. Regardless of both of the men’s best intentions in bringing back their prospective dojos, the poison of their feelings becomes almost a Sins of The Father lesson by the end of the second season.
Fatherhood, both biological and surrogate, plays a huge part in themes of the show and the parallels between the two leads. Both Daniel and Johnny, who found father figures in their own senseis, find themselves in the reverse position with their students. Johnny in particular struggles go be different from Kreese. Much of the sympathy towards Johnny lies in the fact that he was just a kid being led astray by an abusive authority figure. The show poses the question of how to break that cycle while still maintaining the lessons he wants to teach his own students.
While the show actually deals with some serious themes, it is by no means a downer. It’s hard not to have fun watching a show all about karate. There is plenty of humor as well, especially as Old Man Johnny navigates the current world’s technology and culture as a man stuck in the 80s in so many ways.It’s also hilarious whenever a character points out the inherent absurdity of two middle-aged men still fixating on their childhood karate rival.
While I applaud this show for its deconstruction of 80’s nostalgia, it seems to also please the fans who have waited years and years for the reuniting of Johnny and Daniel. It’s a true feat to please both, and “Cobra Kai” does so while delivering a hell of a ride.