What We’re Watching: Cobra Kai

A quick preview of what we’re watching this season.

If you haven’t heard about the current Karate Kid revival series, Cobra Kaithen you’re missing out on what might be the first must-watch show on YouTube Red. To date, YouTube Red has commissioned numerous shows, mostly from established content creators like gaming YouTuber Pewdie Pie. However, Cobra Kai is part of YouTube’s effort to produce more scripted content with television level production values.

The first episode is good, but rough. However, it sets the stage for an increasingly intriguing storyline. For anyone who watched the original Karate Kid, the title of Cobra Kai will be immediately familiar. It was the name of the karate dojo whose members bullied would-be karate hero, Daniel LaRusso. That movie ended with Daniel beating his bully and rival, Johnny Lawrence, at the city karate tournament. Although LaRusso would go on to further adventures in the sequels to the film, the original Karate Kid remained the definitive and strongest entry in the series.

Cobra Kai picks up where that show stopped, although 30 years later and with both Daniel and Johnny in their 40s. Since his beating, Johnny has been on a downward spiral, becoming a loner, racist, sexist creep who never spends time with his estranged son and spends his days bingeing alcohol. In contrast, Daniel has gone on to become a successful car lot owner with a brand name known throughout town. Still living on his past glory, all of Daniel’s commercials are tinged with karate influences and references to his accomplishments in the city tournament. Much like a high school football player who peaked 30 years ago, Daniel is still living life partly trapped in his high school days.

Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence in Cobra Kai
The old rivals, reunited at last.

What’s so interesting about the narrative is how both men are portrayed so true to life. Yes, Johnny has made a mess of his life, but he still wants to do the right thing and early on makes his thesis statement for his character arc, proclaiming that he’s not like his old sensei (a man that nearly killed him when he took second place in the tournament). Johnny’s story is redemptive while remaining true to the character’s rough roots.

Daniel’s story would seem to be much more clear cut, with him resuming the role of the ‘hero’ back to stop the evil Cobra Kai. Except this Cobra Kai is different, and Daniel’s living out the past without trying to understand the changes happening around him. If you were to choose which of the two men to be, you’d probably still say Daniel in almost all cases, but the show doesn’t make him out to be a saint and he’s got his own internal family issues to balance while reckoning with his past – including Johnny.

Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence in Cobra Kai dojo
Episode 2 makes it clear that old rivalries will be renewed.

It’s great stuff, taking familiar material and inverting expectations. The show could have played it straight and done a simple, black and white revival of their rivalry, with Johnny destined to battle Daniel with no attempts to update that rivalry. Cobra Kai doesn’t do that. It shows how two lives can take two people on wildly separate directions while also reminding audience that those two men remain very similar in one respect: they process and understand the world through their martial arts discipline. We’re only four episodes in, but this type of intriguing character development is why we’re watching Cobra Kai. 

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Jason Luthor is the author of the science fiction and dystopian horror, FLOOR 21.

Quick Edit: Holy crap things get better and better starting at episode 4. Everything just gets too good!


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