Cobra Kai shouldn’t have worked. Really, it shouldn’t have. The premise is pointless, I couldn’t imagine it being worthwhile. The series, created by Harold and Kumar’s Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and their friend John Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), brings Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka back as Daniel and Johnny from the original 1984 masterpiece, The Karate Kid. What I thought would happen would be a nostalgic dumpster fire of tropes and not-so-subtle nods to the first movie complete with a showdown between both of them. What I ended up watching was an honest look at what would happen next. This story actually has potential.
It reminds me (perhaps oddly, perhaps not) of the Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy dynamic where, yes (very vague spoiler alert, I suppose), Draco was a bad guy, and yet…given some redemption and some amount of cunning, while yes Harry was the good guy and yet…also kind of a dick to Draco unnecessarily at times, and underestimated Draco. Neither was entirely good nor bad, and the ability to show those different facets of any character tend to make for a more rich story.
There’s a genuine, visceral thrill the first time you see Daniel and Johnny face each other down on the floor of the Cobra Kai dojo that I was not expecting. Part of it is the nostalgia of remembering being a kid of the 80’s and doing Crane Kicks at recess, sure, but I think there’s a real deftness in the writing of Johnny and Daniel in this series
The most interesting aspect of this is nothing about Johnny’s person is presented as right. This is no Last Man Standing elegy for the poor, put down white guy. The show knows that he’s not a good guy. But it’s going forward with that anyway – having him rebuild the same dojo where he was shamed with its bullsh!t macho mantras intact. It does make me curious what direction they’re going to go in. What shape could it possibly take? Making Daniel less than a good guy is a compelling move as well.
I guess I like, not necessarily a redemption story where the bad guy ultimately ends up a good guy, but stories where they acknowledge people are complex. Johnny was probably a douche for lots of reasons. He may be sexist and self-righteous, and yet he can also do some good and perhaps learn from his mistakes, and perhaps eventually put the past behind him. Daniel was the hero of the Karate Kid, and yet winning some Karate tournament in the 80’s does not guarantee you some sort of fairy tale ending, nor does it mean you are without defects. The fact they are able to take a hard look at these characters and their flaws, without making it some story of good and evil in black-and-white terms sounds refreshing. What happens to the fairy tale once the credits roll and you still have a life to live? THAT seems both meta and much more worthy of exploring than what I actually expected them to do with this.
Is it perfect? Nah. I wasn’t expecting that. I love Karate Kid for many reasons and this show hits on many of those reasons. I love the soundtrack, the callbacks to the previous films, and even the new kids. I did not expect to binge it and finish it in 48 hours, but I couldn’t stop watching. Having finished it, I would recommend it to anyone.
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