Cobra Kai: Season 1 (Netflix) — a review

This seems like the sort of series I wouldn’t have liked.

You know the sort I mean. A continuation of an older, successful intellectual property. Like The New WKRP in Cincinnati, which I never watched, even though I loved the original show. Or, Fuller House, which you couldn’t pay me to watch because I didn’t like the original. AfterM*A*S*H, anyone?

This series is, of course, a continuation of The Karate Kid, the 1984 movie starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. I suppose it’s a continuation of its sequels also, although I don’t remember those as well. I may not have watched them, in fact.

While I acknowledge that The Karate Kid is an iconic ’80s movie, and I’ve been known to occasionally say, “Sweep the leg, Johnny,” apropos of nothing, I wasn’t even what I would call a superfan of the movie. The movie had that same hyperkinetic energy and story structure of a lot of movies from around that time. Iron Eagle. Footloose. Adventures in Babysitting. Red Dawn. Return of the Jedi. The theme of underdogs prevailing over superior forces is threaded throughout all of these movies, and others of their ilk.

I liked all of those movies. I still like them. But, I wouldn’t greenlight an episodic series continuing any of their stories thirtysomething years later. Adapting a beloved movie for television is almost always a mistake. All you’ll accomplish is somehow tarnishing the memory of the original.

In spite of my disinclination to like this series, I quickly discovered that I liked it. More surprisingly, I discovered that I liked it a lot.

Let’s talk about the Netflix series Cobra Kai.

First off, a few production notes. The first two seasons of this series originally aired on YouTube Red, a premium service offered by YouTube that replaced Music Key in 2015 and was, in turn, replaced by YouTube Premium in 2018. Netflix acquired the series in June 2020 and is releasing a third season on January 1, 2021. You probably noticed that I gave platform credit to Netflix in the title of this post, but this obviously wasn’t a Netflix original. However, they own it now, and the people at Netflix know a good thing when they see it. It’s how we were able to get new episodes of Lucifer, right?

I can imagine, without verifying my facts, that the move to Netflix brought this series to the attention of a lot more viewers, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. I was aware of its existence because Netflix is very, very good at reminding its members of new content. I never considered watching it, however, until the show got a celebrity shoutout.

I don’t even remember who the celebrity was, or what show I was watching on television when I heard the unsolicited recommendation. It may even have been a podcast I was listening to. I think the celebrity was female. That narrows the field by half, I guess, but I can’t give you any further details. The shoutout wasn’t even that detailed or drawn out; there was no discussion about the series at all.

As I recall, the celebrity said something like this: “Have you watched Cobra Kai yet? It’s sooooo good, isn’t it?”

That’s it. Whoever was talking to the celebrity made some sort of noise of assent that instantly made me think that they hadn’t actually watched the series and then quickly steered the conversation onto another topic. But, the celebrity whose name I remember not at all had sounded genuine in her praise. This made me think, Maybe I should give this series a shot. I knew if it didn’t capture my attention during the first fifteen minutes, my original gut-level reaction about Cobra Kai would be validated.

This series is sooooo good. Watching this first season gave me a booster shot of something I wasn’t aware that I needed during this time of isolation and worry: nostalgia.

The season kicks off (no pun intended) thirty-four years after Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) lost the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). You remember the scene. Johnny is struggling to make ends meet as a laborer and drinks a lot. Meanwhile, LaRusso owns a successful car dealership chain in the San Fernando Valley. It seems that the karate championship in 1984 was a defining moment in the lives of both men.

Johnny is not presented as an archetypal good guy. The drinking, swearing and general grouchiness would preclude that. But, it was obvious from the first episode that he was meant to be a main character on the series. Perhaps even, as the underdog, the protagonist in this story. As both Johnny and Daniel were both initially presented in this new story, I found myself liking Johnny more than Daniel.

I know, I know. Sacrilege. But, it’s true.

Johnny lives in an apartment complex that’s seen better days. He uses karate to save a teenage neighbor, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), from some bullies at a nearby strip mall. In spite of his good intentions, Johnny gets arrested for assault. You know, because . . . real world.

When Johnny is released from police custody, Johnny’s wealthy stepfather (remember, Johnny was the spoiled rich kid in the first movie) gives Johnny a big check and officially disowns him. Johnny’s mother has been dead for nearly two decades, and his stepfather wants nothing more to do with him. From a story standpoint, this was an excellent move. Johnny is now cut off from a huge potential resource.

The message is simple: Johnny is no longer the spoiled rich kid. Daniel LaRusso is the one with the large resource base now. It’s a reversal of fortunes.

Johnny drives out to the All Valley Sports Arena and induldges the viewer in some flashbacks to his last encounter with his Cobra Kai sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), who was the troubled teen’s father-figure as well. The flashback reminded me that I felt sympathy for Johnny during the original movie as well. While Johnny is taking his own trip down memory lane, getting more drunk, his car is destroyed in a hit-and-run by a car full of teenagers.

Ouch. Kicking a man when he’s down.

Despite Johnny’s objections, his car is towed to one of Daniel LaRusso’s dealerships for repairs. The next day, when Johnny goes to have the car removed from the LaRusso dealership, he and Daniel run into each other. Daniel tries to treat Johnny like an old friend, and repairs his car for free. While he’s there at the dealership, Johnny comes to the realization that Daniel’s teenage daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) was one of the passengers in the hit-and-run car.

As Johnny is leaving, Daniel makes a comment about all of them being better off without Cobra Kai. Johnny, who certainly doesn’t feel “better off,” decides to use his stepfather’s money to open a new Cobra Kai dojo. He tells Miguel that he will be his sensei.

This sets up the action for the entire first season. The teenagers in the story are being introduced, but it’s soon apparent that teenagers aren’t exactly the target demographic for this show. That demo would probably be people who were teenagers back in 1984.

The real story is the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel, just like it’s always been.

Of course, these guys are adults now. They seem to forget that at times during this season. It turns out that Johnny has a son who is about the same age as Daniel’s daughter Sam. His son’s name is Robby, and Johnny has never been much of a father to him. Therefore, Robby doesn’t like his father much. Plus, he’s a troubled kid. In an act of semi-rebellion, Robby goes to work at the LaRusso dealership and later begins taking karate lessons from Daniel himself, who doesn’t realize he’s training his former rival’s son.

Meanwhile, Miguel helps Johnny to build the reputation of his dojo, even though Daniel attempts a few underhanded business practices to make things difficult for him. Miguel’s nerd friends Dmitri (Gianni Decenzo) and Eli (Jacob Bertrand) are introduced. Dmitri doesn’t feel like karate is for him, but Eli joins Cobra Kai and, after getting a tattoo and committing to a dyed mohawk, rebrands himself as “Hawk.” Meanwhile, Aisha (Nichole Brown), who was once besties with Sam, joins Cobra Kai as well. Wouldn’t you know it? Sam LaRusso begins to have feelings for Miguel Diaz, and she can’t tell her parents because of the feud between the adults.

It’s much more entertaining than I just made it sound.

The worldbuilding in this ten-episode season is deftly done. Like a blossoming fractal, our cast of characters quickly grows. We meet Miguel’s mom and grandmother. Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) is also his business partner. He also has a younger son Anthony (Griffin Santopietro), who doesn’t share his sister and father’s passion for karate. Daniel’s Cousin Louie (Bret Ernst) exists as an agent of chaos, who generally mucks everything up and escalates the conflict between Daniel and Johnny.

Johnny manages to get Cobra Kai reinstated for the All Valley tournament, even as Daniel tries to exert his own influence to block it, and, of course, the tournament itself caps off the finale. As it should, right?

I’m not going to spoil everything for you. This is a good story with a measured buildup to a rousing finale. The series works on many levels. It’s a competitive sports movie. Sure, I think I can say that. Underdog teenagers with a downtrodden sensei, improving their self-confidence and capabilities. It’s also a family drama, with some father-son tension and a little bit of Romeo and Juliet, for good measure. I would also call it a bit of a midlife crisis comedy as well.

The creative powers behind this one were smart by making this a series about the adults instead of focusing solely on the teenagers. Sure, the storylines of the teenage castmembers are important, but everything is filtered through the lenses of Johnny and Daniel. This may be my own personal bias, since I identify most with both Johnny and Daniel.

This season hits a lot of buttons with me. The nostalgia factor, I mentioned earlier. Most of the ’80s stuff is brought out by Johnny Lawrence, who is trying to live out his glory days. The music is refreshing, and watching Johnny trying, and failing, to still be “cool” is often heartbreaking for an old man like me, who manages to still be cool without trying. The whole underdog theme is one I apparently never tire of.

It’s not about good versus evil, though. The Cobra Kai dojo isn’t all bad, and Daniel LaRusso isn’t all good. Both Johnny and Daniel demonstrate that they are capable of being both hero and villain. Like any well-drawn character, each sees himself as the hero of his own story.

Honestly, I liked Johnny more than Daniel in this season. Genius.

Firewater’s It-Doesn’t-Matter-If-You’re-a-Loser-or-a-Nerd-or-a-Freak!-All-That-Matters-is-that-You-Become-Badass! Report Card: A

An easy-A. The late Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi is missed, but his presence permeates all the LaRusso scenes. Another character, someone thought to be dead, makes a reappearance at the end of the final episode. You probably already know who it is, but I’m not going to spoil it for you if you don’t. I’ll just say that I look forward to what’s coming next.

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