There is such a thing as too many streaming services, something YouTube might have found out after the launch of what was originally called YouTube Premium — a subscription service that initially would be a platform for YouTube Originals scripted film content.
That experiment, which pits YouTube against Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Hulu and others, doesn’t seem to be working out as the folks at Alphabet, the parent company of YouTube and Google, had hoped. YouTube Premium, which essentially offers ad-free viewing of YouTube content, got away from producing its own shows after only a couple of years. To compete with the big boys in streaming, you’d better load your viewer down with exclusive content; otherwise audiences with only so many TV dollars to spend between cable and the more established services simply won’t add you to the mix.
The best of those YouTube shows was one of the better spinoffs you’ll see in recent years, a show which, after Netflix bought it out from YouTube in June, is now the number one streaming property in America after only one weekend.
Cobra Kai is a sequel to the 1980s Karate Kid movies, which starred Ralph Macchio as a New Jersey teenager transplanted to the Los Angeles area who turns to karate, taught by Mr. Miyagi, a wise Japanese immigrant played by Pat Morita, as a means of defending himself against a gang of privileged high school bullies who train at a local dojo run by a psychotic Vietnam vet. The Karate Kid was one of the classic 1980s films, in that its simple morality-play plot and sappy optimism might not have reflected much gritty realism but nonetheless made audiences leave the theater happy. The original was a huge hit, and even the two sequels had box office success.
It’s hard to make a 1980s-style show in 2018, the year the first season of Cobra Kai hit YouTube, and the creators didn’t even bother. That’s one of the unfortunate, yet nevertheless delightful, facets of the series.
Johnny Lawrence, the hateful villain of the first Karate Kid movie, turns into the unlikely hero of Cobra Kai. Lawrence, played by William Zabka in both the movies and the show, is now in his 50s 34 years after losing the All-Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament to Macchio’s Danny Larusso, and as Cobra Kai opens we find him as a down-on-his-luck handyman, waking up each morning alone and hungover in a lousy apartment with empty beer cans covering the floor. Lawrence loses his job over a mistake that isn’t his fault and, as he broods over his terrible luck he stumbles across the scene of his friendly-but-dorky teenaged neighbor Miguel Diaz, whose Ecuadoran immigrant family lives two doors down, getting throttled by a gang of high school bullies somewhat reminiscent of the one Lawrence captained in his own youth.
But Johnny jumps into action and rekindles his karate skills to batter the bullies into retreat, saving Miguel but getting arrested for assault — a perfect contrast between the 80s, when good guys kicking ass resulted in uplifting theme music and the credits rolling, and now, when no good deed goes unpunished. Johnny’s rich stepfather, played in a delightful cameo by the irascible Ed Asner, bails him out of jail and then gives him a check that he says “buys me out of your life.” It might have taken 34 years for the full reveal, but now we know that Johnny’s character issues dating back to the Karate Kid movies, when he was billed as the rich brat villain, are the product of a home without the love of a father regardless of the creature comforts Asner’s character might have provided.
Fatherhood turns out to be a critically important theme in Cobra Kai, one reason that despite its rough edges and dark, cynical humor, it’s almost the morality play the Karate Kid movies were.
Miguel begs Johnny to teach him those fighting skills, and he initially refuses. But after having ripped up the check his stepfather gives him, Johnny goes on a bender and ends up at the site of the infamous All-Valley karate tournament loss where he relives his humiliation and the subsequent attack John Kreese, the psychopathic sensei of the old Cobra Kai dojo Johnny had represented in the tournament, perpetrated on him, Johnny’s parked car is trashed in a hit-and-run.
It turns out one of the passengers in the car wrecking Johnny’s Firebird is Samantha Larusso, the daughter of Johnny’s old rival. He realizes this later, but he’s reunited with Larusso when his car is towed to one of the dealerships in Larusso’s chain. Johnny would sooner eat broken glass than do business with his old enemy, who has become one of the most recognizable figures in the San Fernando Valley — his TV commercials featuring his slogan “we kick the competition” and his penchant for giving away bonsai trees to all of his customers make Johnny cringe when he sees them. He goes to rescue his totaled car from the dealership and ends up face-to-face with Larusso, who offers to fix the Firebird for free as a favor for an old friend. He reluctantly agrees, but then he sees Samantha at the dealership and recognizes her from the hit-and-run.
That’s when he tapes the ripped-up check from his stepfather together, cashes it at the bank and uses the money to restart the old Cobra Kai dojo with Miguel as his first student. And the show is off and running from there.
It’s a delightful flip-over of the Karate Kid script. Macchio’s Danny Larusso of the Karate Kid movies was so earnest and innocent as to be nearly implausible, but the older Larusso shows distinct flaws. He’s still a basically good guy but his Ned Flanders act hides an arrogant streak and he turns out to be every bit the cutthroat competitor his old Cobra Kai nemeses were. Throughout the show, Johnny and Danny repeatedly try to mend fences and coexist, but events force them apart. They’re fated to be lifelong enemies despite having some important similarities.
And the rivalry does Johnny a lot of good, as he rekindles his energy and focus serving as a father figure to Miguel and many of the other rag-tag assortment of geeks and losers who turn up as students at Cobra Kai. He starts off operating in the manner he was accustomed to when studying karate under Kreese, and fairly quickly realizes it doesn’t produce results he’s happy with — in fact, he inadvertently creates a monster or two not dissimilar to himself.
He’s imperfect, but he doesn’t stop trying, and he’s driven by the idea that people can actually change and improve and deserve a second chance. As in real life, that theory has mixed results. But for Johnny, who’s trying to be a better father figure than he himself had growing up, the relationship with Miguel is a chance at redemption after his own failures as a father to his own son Robby, who emerges as a figure creating division between Johnny and Danny.
The message being that father figures are critical in the lives of kids, even if those figures aren’t biological. And while Cobra Kai is full of hilarious plot turns based on the differences between the 80s and today — for example, when Danny decides to revive Miyagi-Do Karate, Mr. Miyagi’s old dojo, and puts together a web ad for it, he’s immediately accused of cultural appropriation — the underlying theme is timeless.
Part of the reason the show rocketed to #1 on the streaming charts as soon as it debuted on Netflix, beyond the power of that streaming service (Netflix had the same effect with Lucifer, a show it rescued off Fox’s cancellation pile), is that it does have something to say beyond mixing 1980s nostalgia with modern-day slices of life. It’s wonderfully entertaining, mischievously funny and a perfect escape from the blues of 2020.
Next year, Season 3 of Cobra Kai is due out with Netflix picking up the tab. It’s almost a sure thing Cobra Kai will only grow as a fan favorite if the third season is as good as the first two.