The era of TV reboots and revivals is strong. Whether they're already available, like the Roseanne revival and Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot, or the new iterations of Charmed, Roswell, and Magnum PI that are currently in various stages of development and production, what's old is new again--even The Karate Kid.
When YouTube Red first launched in 2015, it was with the intention of building an original programming library. After all, if Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu could do it, why not the internet's foremost video hosting service? Thus far, the results have been mixed. While originals like Step Up: High Water and Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television have met with moderate success, the service has yet to find a breakout show that could really help it make an impact.
That is, until now. Cobra Kai should not be good. It's reviving a movie from over three decades ago and follows a down-on-his-luck loser as he gets reacquainted with an old foe that has gone on to be a huge success. It stars two actors who excelled in the original film but didn't end up becoming the box office titans or massive stars they might have hoped for. While Ralph Macchio and William Zabka have carved out respectable careers with guest appearances on TV shows and smaller roles in films, neither was able to ride the The Karate Kid wave to become household names like some of their '80s counterparts--Kiefer Sutherland and Rob Lowe come to mind.
With all of that in mind, Cobra Kai might not sound like the best idea for YouTube Red to take a gamble on. Thankfully, though, they did. And while everything leading up to its release--trailers, its classification as a comedy, and that bizarre used car salesman commercial starring Macchio in character as Daniel--might have seemed silly and not very faithful to the tone of the original movie, the series itself is the opposite.
Cobra Kai--named after the evil dojo Zabka's Johnny is now reopening--feels like a trip back to the world of the original film, where Johnny thought he was God's gift to humanity. Now, though, that world has passed him by. It helps that he is just as much a jerk as he used to be. In the first two episodes, he makes xenophobic comments and only intervenes to fend off some street thugs from attacking someone when his 1980s Pontiac Trans Am--which has seen better days--takes some minor damage. These are the exact types of things he would have done in the original movie, but they seem so disconnected with the world in 2018.
His is the story of someone who peaked in high school and is holding onto any thread of that former glory he can, whether it's through his muscle car, staring at girls much too young for him, or a rebellious attitude that leads him to lose his job after losing his temper. He is shown to be varying levels of racist, homophobic, and sexist, as well as completely stuck in the past. Yet, as the world leaves him in the dust, Johnny becomes a somewhat sympathetic figure.
To contrast that, there's Daniel. Since beating his nemesis at the All-Valley Karate Tournament over 30 years earlier in the original Karate Kid, Daniel's life has gone well. He owns a successful car dealership, he has a nice house and a beautiful family, and he's a member of the local country club. Like Johnny, though, he's lost his way. He's taken the things he learned from his mentor and sensei Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and turned them into a gimmick to sell cars. In his commercials he karate chops prices and offers free bonsai trees to every customer.
After they cross paths again, Johnny becomes determined to turn his luck around and reopens the Cobra Kai dojo--and reinstate its brutal rules. Even all these years later, pain, fear, and defeat do not exist in this dojo. However, he's not as hard-edged a sensei as John Kreese (Martin Kove) was to him. He still has a foul mouth and doesn't seem to care much about his kids, but even in the first two episodes, it's clear that Johnny is changing. He's finally being forced to grow up.
It just so happens that in doing so, he's coming into direct opposition with Daniel once again. This time, though, neither are the hero or the villain of the story. They're both operating in a grey space; both think what they are doing is right--Johnny by passing on the knowledge he still deeply values to a new group of kids, Daniel by putting a stop to what he sees as the epitome of evil.
What it shows is that, in their hearts, both of them are men that will either confront and defeat their past or remain stuck in it forever. Daniel has is successful and loves his family dearly, yet his vendetta against the Cobra Kai dojo has never died. Meanwhile, instead of cleaning up his life like a normal person would, Johnny is doing it by teaching kids how to beat up other kids, simply because it’s what he was taught is the right thing to do.
With these two being the center of the series, Cobra Kai is something that will live or die on the performances of Zabka and Macchio. Thankfully, both are embracing their history with these characters as the leads of the show. This isn't a parody of The Karate Kid. Johnny and Daniel simply feel like they've grown up.
Likewise, the young supporting cast infuses new life into the franchise as Daniel and Johnny set out to train the next karate kids (no, not the Hilary Swank movie). In particular, Xolo Maridueña (Parenthood) and Mary Mouser (Scandal) shine as Johnny's first student and Daniel's daughter, respectively.
The cast, combined with the creative team of Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, and Hot Tub Time Machine scribe Josh Heald, have created something special. There are some laughs, a good dose of karate action, and the tense chemistry between Zabka and Macchio is as palpable as ever. It's essentially everything a fan of the original could hope for in a revival and introduces enough new faces and stakes to potentially make new fans of the next generation.
Whether Cobra Kai can maintain the quality and tone it packs into the first two episodes of the series as it continues remains to be seen, but it certainly has the potential to be exactly what YouTube Red needs--quality content that could appeal to a wider audience. Now it's up to that audience to decide if it's worth their time and something they want to invest in.
All 10 episodes of Cobra Kai Season 1 will be available to stream Wednesday, May 2, on YouTube Red.
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