From ‘The Karate Kid’ to ‘Apocalypse Now’ in two easy steps
When we last left ‘Cobra Kai’, the world’s favorite karate-themed teen soap opera, Robby, the estranged teen son of Sensei Johnny, had kicked Miguel, Sensei Johnny’s protegé, off a balcony, paralyzing him. Miguel and Johnny had been fighting over Samantha, the daughter of Sensei Daniel, Sensei Johnny’s lifelong rival. Meanwhile, Tori, a bad-girl plot device, had scarred Samantha with a cool slashing thing mounted on her knuckle. Once upon a time, this was ‘The Karate Kid,’ a beloved but nearly-forgotten mid-80s underdog sports story. Now ‘Cobra Kai’ is one evil twin plot away from being Days of Our Lives.
‘Cobra Kai’, when it debuted on the now-forgotten YouTube Red a couple of years ago, pulled off the nifty trick of making Johnny Lawrence, The Karate Kid’s secondary villain, the anti-hero of the entire saga. Played perfectly by William Zabka, we first see Johnny an alcoholic loser who’s never gotten over his humiliating loss at a regional teen karate championship nearly 40 years ago. The show doesn’t make Ralph Macchio’s Daniel, the original Karate Kid, the bad guy, but they do portray him as a bit of a self-righteous drip, while Johnny gets all the best lines and a chance at redemption. Season one serves as a kind of franchise reset, as Johnny and Daniel’s best students face off in a karate championship. In a normal universe, that would wrap the whole thing in a gi and send it on its way.
Then Season 2 introduces the real villain, Johnny’s former sensei John Kreese, played by a grizzled Martin Kove. Within about 90 minutes, the rivalry between Cobra Kai, the dojo, not the show, and Daniel’s Miyagi-do consumes every teenager in the San Fernando Valley, and dominates the local news. Karate championships are boring. This show now has more public battles royale than Avengers: Endgame. Karate-chopping, leg-sweeping teenagers destroy a mall food court and an entire high school. But the best scenes are really the side ones where Miguel teaches Johnny how to use Facebook.
Season 3, rather than return to the roots of what made Season one and the original movie so fun, has tripled down on the set pieces. Johnny and Daniel battle a bunch of thugs in a chop-shop garage for no particular reason. Teens do karate at a juvenile detention center, an abandoned amusement park conveniently located next door to an actual amusement park, and at a private home. Also, they steal a deadly snake from the “Ventura Zoo”, which doesn’t actually exist. Why stop there? Why not stage a karate fight at a hospital, or at Dodger Stadium, or in the United States Capitol building?
Meanwhile, though John Kreese doesn’t have mustaches to twirl, he might as well. He looms like a damn menace in every scene. And even when he’s not in the scene, there’s a chance he could appear in the scene. Cobra Kai never misses an opportunity to have a character walk in out of nowhere, say something ominous, and walk out, fists clenched. Improv troupes would expel members for some of this excessive scene-barging. Kreese is the worst offender by far. Something normal is happening and then he comes around the corner, backed by five to 10 dipshit karate teens, and says something like “you missed your chance, now this is war.”
Speaking of war, the show wastes countless minutes giving Kreese an origin story that starts with outtakes from American Graffiti and ends up as ‘Platoon’ for dummies. He gets into a karate fight with a jock over a girl in a poodle skirt. Eventually, he ends up in a North Vietnamese cage match with his evil sergeant, dangled over a pit of snakes. The Karate Kid has suddenly become Apocalypse Now.
‘Cobra Kai’ has been getting some crap for its representation of Asians. The show’s main Asian character, Mr. Miyagi, has been dead for decades. But his presence hovers over the show, Yoda-like. Season 3 spends two episodes following Daniel back to Miyagi’s home of Okinawa, so Daniel can save his car dealership in Encino somehow. It presents Okinawa in a variety of ways, not all of them stereotypical, but it’s all to serve the white hero’s mystical karate quest. But representation is hardly the show’s main problem.
Cobra Kai nearly dies every episode because of absurd plot twists and an absolute show-crushingly bad performance by Tanner Buchanan as Robby, one of the worst teen actors in TV history. Without the peg to the original Karate Kid, this would all make even less sense than it already does. Let’s not pretend it’s worth much at this point. The show is deliciously terrible. But I still watched the third entire season in less than a week while my brain oozed out my ears. Then again, I liked The O.C. and Beverly Hills 90210, even as they completely skidded off the rails, and I watched the entire first season of 13 Reasons Why. There are few teen soaps, or martial arts movies, that can’t hold my attention. Combine the two and you’ve got a magic formula.
It’s hard to not enjoy the screeching bird on the soundtrack whenever the character of “Hawk” goes into karate action. William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence is still the best character on TV, the last living man who believes that the 1980s were awesome. His relationship with Miguel (and Miguel’s mother), is still really cute. How can you not love a teacher who tells his paralyzed student, “your legs are pussies”? He also sets Miguel’s foot on fire. And takes him to a Dee Snider concert where, mysteriously, every single person in the crowd is under the age of 30, and most aren’t white.
Maybe Cobra Kai’s biggest appeal is showing us a Los Angeles that’s not locked down, not suffering from a COVID outbreak, and not engaged in a political struggle any bigger than “my dojo is better than your dojo.” If only we could all solve our problems with a big karate brawl, until the next big karate brawl.
That would be badass.