Midway through the Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai, Daniel LaRusso prepares to tell his frustrated new student that day after day of backbreaking manual labor was, in fact, the crucial first step on a journey towards mastering martial arts, just like Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel-san himself back in 1984.
“God, I love this part,” Daniel says.
So do all of us — at least, all the Gen X’ers YouTube is targeting with the new half-hour dramedy, which releases all 10 episodes of its first season tomorrow to its YouTube Red subscription service. (I’ve seen the whole thing; the first two episodes, available for free to non-subscribers, are embedded below.) Daniel is as much a fan of the story as we are — it’s a running gag that even in his 50s, Daniel can’t stop telling people about his teenage days apprenticing under Mr. Miyagi — and seems delighted to step into his old friend’s role and pay those lessons forward.
If Cobra Kai were just the tale of how Daniel and his high school nemesis Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, the world champion of ’80s teen movie villains) training the next generation of karate kids, it would be shameless pandering — at times effective pandering, because Macchio and Zabka really commit to their most famous roles, but not something capable of filling out 3 hours of story (and counting, if it gets renewed). On paper, there’s barely enough material there for a 10-minute comedy short.
Yet somehow, Cobra Kai — created by Harold & Kumar writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and Hot Tub Time Machine writer Josh Heald — keeps surpassing all reasonable expectations. Every time I thought the idea had exhausted its usefulness, the story took another turn, or another character dynamic came into play, and I just wanted to see more of it. I wouldn’t exactly call it “good” — in part because its appeal rests enormously on your level of knowledge about and affection for the original movie (whereas someone who’d never seen a Rocky movie could still love Creed) — but it’s compulsively watchable, emotionally engaging, and almost always one step ahead of where you think it’s going.
A lot of this comes from the way the creators keep switching up the roles from the first movie (and to a lesser extent, the two Macchio/Pat Morita sequels, both of which play into the plot to varying degrees) so that it’s more than just a rehash of a story told so many times before. As the title suggests, the early focus is on Johnny, who initially seems like he’s going to be the Mr. Miyagi of this story. His life clearly having peaked around the time he first met Daniel LaRusso, Johnny’s a drunken handyman with a teenage son (Tanner Buchanan’s Robby) he never sees, no friends, and nothing of value (even sentimental) besides his rusting vintage Firebird. He’s brought back to life when his young neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) runs into trouble with some bullies of his own, and before you can say, “Wax on, wax off,” Johnny has begun mentoring the kid and resurrecting the Cobra Kai name in a new strip mall dojo.
Miguel is clearly meant to be a 21st century Daniel LaRusso, while the actual Daniel in turn appears very much the bully to Johnny, a wealthy and influential businessman doing everything in his power to shut the new Cobra Kai down before it’s even really started. The tables have completely turned, and they continue to rotate, with Cobra Kai in time becoming a haven for Miguel’s fellow outcasts, and Robby showing more interest in his father’s former rival than in the old man himself. Maridueña, Buchanan, and (as Daniel’s daughter Samantha) Mary Mouser all evoke various aspects of, respectively, Macchio, Zabka, and Elisabeth Shue — particularly the way Maridueña displays some of the same gawky earnestness that the eternally boyish Macchio still possesses — while also seeming like fleshed-out and modern kids. So when the story keeps mixing and matching their positions relative to the original story, it doesn’t just feel like a writing exercise, but an interesting and fun way to keep exploring who everyone is.