Cobra Kai, the “continuation” of the Karate Kid franchise that released its second season on YouTube Premium earlier this year, shouldn’t work, but a big part of the reason it does is Billy Zabka. You’d expect the series to be a cheap nostalgia play, a way to maintain the IP that already gave us three sequels in the 80s and 90s (I saw the fourth one, starring Hillary Swank in the theaters with my mom), but Cobra Kai doesn’t just exploit our Karate Kid nostalgia (I mean it does, but it doesn’t just do that), it attempts to unpack it.
In Cobra Kai, nostalgia isn’t just the hook, it’s the theme. Does this thing we loved just remind us of being young, or is it genuinely worthy recreating?
Zabka reprises his role as the now grown-up Johnny Lawrence, and it’s Johnny’s personal conflict that drives the series. It would’ve been easy to just paint Johnny as “victim of toxic masculinity” and spend the whole show ripping on him. Or, conversely, to have him toughen up these sensitive youngsters and spend the whole series smashing up participation trophies to help the kids grow into their traditional and “correct” roles.
But Cobra Kai attempts nuance and Johnny Lawrence is complicated. He obviously feels a kind of wistful pride in his days as a sleeveless be-gi’d member of Cobra Kai, the Oakland Raiders of San Fernando Valley karate tournaments. It was largely their teachings that made him the man he is. But how much does he like that man? Can he separate all the self-confidence and strength he learned to feel from the more toxic lessons? Or, you know, from the fact that his sensei/surrogate father broke his trophy and tried to kill him?
Zabka turns out to be the perfect vehicle for this conflict, between which traditions to pass on and which to let die. Cobra Kai allows for a depth of acting ability most of us probably didn’t know Zabka had, managing to pull off both “funny 80s bully” and “relatable everyman.”
That’s a tough task, not just acting-wise, but even looks-wise. It’s hard to think of two more inherently contradictory appearances than “working class everyman” and “former 80s child actor” (imagine, say, Corey Feldman trying to manage that one). Ralph Macchio probably couldn’t pull that off the same way, but he’s been reimagined in Cobra Kai as the gloryboy owner of a local car dealership and it works beautifully. The show, created by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald (the first two the writers behind the Harold and Kumar franchise), was nominated for an Emmy last week and announced a season three greenlight last month.
Zabka and his co-star, Ralph Macchio also recently teamed up for their first commercial, for the exotic car collection by Enterprise, which lets customers choose a rental from their collection of exotic cars, including a bunch featured in Daniel’s dealership in the show. I had the chance to speak with Zabka while he was promoting the launch, and I got to pick his brain about 80s fame, life as an iconic movie bully, and why so many movies, songs, and shows seemed to be set in the San Fernando Valley in the ’80s.