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.
But just as the show is likely meaningless to anyone who hasn’t seen the first movie — even though the season gradually features clips covering about 40 percent of the original running time — much of the dramatic and comedic weight falls on our two defending champs.
Macchio’s been a professional actor for four decades, and while the adult roles haven’t always been there for him (it was a pleasant surprise to see him as one of the cops on The Deuce), he slips back into Daniel-san’s skin as easily as Daniel once caught that fly with chopsticks. This is a Daniel whose dreams have almost entirely come true (when we meet him, the only blemish in his life is that his younger son Anthony is a spoiled brat who won’t look up from his tablet), and who very clearly knows it. He’s a generous and patient husband, father, and boss, but he’s also just smug enough in his success that you can see why he makes Johnny crazy all these years later. When the story calls upon Daniel to rediscover his own love of karate, Macchio is more than up to the dramatic challenge — one sequence in particular, borrowing liberally from Bill Conti’s score for the first movie, will send chills down your spine if you’re a viewer of a certain age — but he also re-establishes his light comedy chops well enough that it will hopefully bring him out of career limbo.
For that matter, Zabka and the writers work wonders in making Johnny quasi-sympathetic, even as he’s portrayed as exactly what you might expect that snot-nosed kid to grow up into: a bitter, racist, sexist misanthrope with little understanding or interest in the modern world. There’s a Make Karate Great Again vibe to a lot of what Johnny does, even as his student are likable victims like Miguel or Eli (Jacob Bertrand), who’s mocked by more popular kids for his cleft palate scar, as well as his social awkwardness. (When Eli tells Johnny that doctors think he’s on the spectrum, his new sensei retorts, “I don’t know what that is, but get off it, pronto.”) The scripts and Zabka’s performance almost magically find the right balance that allows Johnny to be entertainingly awful even as he’s doing right by Miguel and the other students, and there are moments where it’s startling to find him the more rootable of the two adult leads.
It was a running gag on How I Met Your Mother — where both Zabka and Macchio did good-natured cameos over the years — that Barney Stinson always viewed Johnny as the wronged hero of The Karate Kid, but Cobra Kai somehow manages to take that joke seriously, and make it work. There’s a scene late in the season where Johnny tells Miguel the story of the movie from his point of view (again, with ample clips of the younger Zabka and Macchio), and he makes a mostly convincing case(*) for Daniel being as much at fault as he was for everything that happened. When he laments that Daniel won their final match with an illegal kick to the face, he’s not wrong, even as his insistence on making that point 34 years later points out how much he and his opponent are both living in the past.
(*) He does leave out a few key pieces of evidence, notably him and his buddies getting NJ soccer star Daniel kicked off the team on the first day of tryouts, thus depriving him of a chance to do what he does best and make friends in his new city.
Some callbacks land more gracefully than others — there’s an attempt to introduce yet another unstoppable Mr. Miyagi move, but the execution is very underwhelming, and Macchio remains a much less convincing martial artist than Zabka — but the creators have brought Johnny, Daniel, and the world around the All-Valley Karate Tournament into the 21st century far more nimbly than they have any business doing. It remains to be seen whether the show’s target demo has even heard of YouTube Red — or at least whether they’ll be willing to shell out for yet another streaming service — but if it draws enough subscribers to merit a second season, I want to see what happens next. Cobra Kai should be a one-joke idea, but — like an unknown Daniel carving his way through more seasoned tournament opponents while wearing a stolen black belt — it keeps getting back up every time you think it’s finished, and has another move to display.
Cobra Kai is gonna fight! Now isn’t this what it’s all about, folks?