I wasn’t sure about COBRA KAI (Netflix, which acquired it from YouTube) going into it. I grew up in the ’80s, but I’m no nostalgia hound. And while KARATE KID has its merits, I actually found it pretty forgettable, one of an endless slew of ’80s movies where some restless kid is mentored or challenged to discover innate talent and win accolades and the girl. Then something great happened, which is COBRA KAI totally surprised me, trading on KARATE KID while blazing its own identity and discovering something far deeper and stronger than the original.
In KARATE KID, Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) moves to California from New Jersey and quickly ends up scrapping with bullies led by Johnny (William Zabka) while vying for the affection of Johnny’s ex-girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Daniel befriends and is trained in karate by Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and ends up defeating Johnny in a tournament to become the new champion. Afterwards, Johnny is brutalized by the savage sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo, who despises Johnny for losing.
Now it’s 34 years later, and Johnny is a down-on-his-luck boozer, while Daniel is a successful business owner with a family. Johnny ends up mentoring a bullied kid who has a crush on Daniel’s daughter, while Daniel ends up mentoring Johnny’s son. Inspired, Johnny restarts the Cobra Kai dojo to teach its hard-hitting way of karate. This puts them on a collision course that opens old wounds and relives old conflicts–including about how to live one’s life as embodied in different karate forms–this time with them as the mentors.
The show is simply terrific. It trades on the original movies just enough and finds its own identity with likeable characters and great writing. Unlike many of today’s TV series, it doesn’t slam the characters with one big conflict after another but instead brings a lot of heart, building its small conflicts to the big one at the end, which you know going into it will be a karate tournament. You can’t help but root for both Johnny and Daniel, and it’s great to see how their history and rivalry gives them a purpose and even a little affection for each other.
I’m just starting Season 2 now and highly recommend this series, which accomplishes so much more than its premise promises.