Even though I have often said, and written, that looking forward to something is the secret to happiness, nostalgia—or looking back, if parallel sentence construction is your thing—also plays a key role in my never-ending pursuit of happiness.
There are several new-ish entertainment offerings that scratch the nostalgia itch. Netflix’s Stranger Things, with its 1980s vibe, is certainly one of these. GLOW, another throwback show set in the ’80s, now sadly cancelled, is another. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like a kid again while watching The Mandalorian, which may have been my favorite Star Wars show since 1980.
Then there’s Cobra Kai.
I watched the first three Karate Kid movies, back in the day. I saw the first one in the theater, and the two sequels were video rentals, I believe. I loved the first movie; I didn’t like the sequels as much. In fact, even when this series begins referencing those two movies, I don’t have clear memories of them, just images and impressions. I never watched The Next Karate Kid or the remake starring Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s kid. I doubt I ever will.
The first movie was an almost-perfect piece of storytelling. A little cheesy, as most 1980s movies were, but with a lot of heart. I didn’t become aware of this series until it came to Netflix. The first two seasons aired on YouTube’s premium service. When it made the jump to Netflix, the streaming giant decided to continue the series as a Netflix Original, beginning with Season 3, similar to the way it took over Lucifer.
When the first season of Cobra Kai began by showing us rivals Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), thirty-four years after Daniel finished Johnny off in the All Valley Under-18 Karate Championship with a crane kick, I knew that I was experiencing a rare sensation. I was watching something that I wanted to see—something I needed to see—without ever thinking that it would ever exist.
Johnny Lawrence was as much the protagonist in the first season as LaRusso. I found myself rooting for him. Johnny reopens the Cobra Kai dojo while he and Daniel continue an immature prank war. Johnny’s character arc is one of redemption, and is the most captivating story line in the series. Johnny heads into Season 2 after achieving an important victory. His star pupil, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), won the valley karate championship. Cobra Kai is back.
So is John Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny’s former sensei and abusive father-figure. The addition of Kreese changes the Johnny-Daniel dynamic somewhat. Kreese is still the badass whose “strike hard, strike first, no mercy” mentality created the Cobra Kai dojo, but he’s no longer the two-dimensional bully he was in the first movie.
Speaking of bullies, Daniel LaRusso came across as the primary antagonist in the first season. He was the bully, in this thirty-year reversal of fortunes. I realize that I was being emotionally manipulated to root for Johnny Lawrence. I was glad to see Kreese back, because I didn’t like thinking of Daniel as the bad guy. We know Kreese is a villain, and will probably end up with both Daniel and Johnny as his enemies.
During this season, Daniel spends a lot of screen time preparing for the reopening of Mr. Miyagi’s dojo. While he’s doing this for many good reasons, honoring the late Miyagi and getting back in touch with the person he used to be, he’s also opening the dojo to continue his competition with Johnny Lawrence.
Our veteran characters, the continued rivalry between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do, sets the stage for the season’s drama, which is largely acted out by the younger characters in the cast, including: Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser), Daniel’s daughter; Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), Johnny’s son; and Miguel Diaz. Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo) still play a part in the story. Back when Hawk was the nerdish Eli, he and Demetri were best friends. Now, the former friends find themselves diametrically opposed, as Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do become, in effect, rival gangs.
Cobra Kai seems to be reverting to its former evil ways, influenced by the presence of John Kreese. I don’t feel like this is a spoiler. We all thought the same dark thoughts when Kreese first reappeared. The rivalry between Johnny and Daniel is echoed by the actions of their students. The violence between the two dojos escalates until the tenth, and last, episode, when one student (I won’t give that one away) is seriously injured during the first day of school, as the rivalry becomes a full-blown rumble between two gangs.
This series manages to tell a lot of story in only ten episodes. It also manages its subplots so fluidly that they all seem of a piece with the central story arc. There’s your standard teenage love triangle, featuring Sam LaRusso, Robby Keene and Miguel Diaz. Maybe a quadrangle with the addition of Peyton List’s Tory Nichols. The enemies-who-were-friends bit with Hawk and Demetri. Johnny Lawrence takes a stab at romance with Miguel’s mom Carmen (Vanessa Rubio). Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) is also dealing with what appears to be her husband’s mid-life crisis, and often seems to be the only level-headed adult on the show.
There isn’t a wasted scene in this entire season. This series not only hits all the right nostalgia buttons, but updates the story for a new generation without severing ties with the past. All television writers should watch this series to see how it’s done.
Cobra Kai makes me want to see continuations of other properties from nearly four decades ago. How about television series based on the movies Stripes, John Carpenter’s They Live, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High? I never thought I needed to see these properties reimagined and updated, but now I’m not so sure.
Firewater’s Now-I-Want-a-Coors-Banquet Report Card: A
This is good television. It’s entertaining, never boring, and sets up a third season masterfully. You should be watching this.