Culture Trips

Cobra Kai: from dumped YouTube gambit to Netflix smash hit | US television

A modern TV reboot of classic 80s teen film The Karate Kid sounds like an almost comically bad idea. It’s the sort of suggestion you can imagine a creatively desperate TV executive leaving for himself in a panicky Partridgean voice note while drunk on a Tuesday night. So many ways it could go spectacularly wrong, and virtually none where it could go right. And yet, with that very same back-of-a-fag-packet premise, Cobra Kai – the smash new Netflix series – has gone miraculously right, racking up 73 million viewers, according to the streamer’s latest figures.

Created by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald – who between them have been responsible for the Harold and Kumar and Hot Tub Time Machine films – Cobra Kai started life on YouTube Originals, where the plan was for it to be the series that would put the new streaming service on the map. But a change in strategy last year to non-scripted content left an opportunity for someone else to take it on, and Netflix – home of that other 80s nostalgia fest Stranger Things – were only too happy to oblige, releasing the third season to acclaim this January and already giving the green light to a fourth.

The series takes place 34 years after the events of the original film, where, for those that don’t know, Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) mentored by Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) in the ways of karate, beats his high school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in a karate tournament by heroically crane-kicking him in the face. It was the classic underdog story where you knew exactly who to root for. In this reboot, the old gang, and crucially the same actors, are back – but things have shifted. “We’ve spent 34 years rooting for Daniel LaRusso and seeing the world through his eyes,” co-creator Hurwitz has said. “For Cobra Kai to work as a series, we needed to get the audience to understand Johnny Lawrence in a different way.”

From Johnny’s point of view, that iconic crane kick was an illegal move, and one he has never really recovered from. We find him at rock bottom, jobless, sharing a bed with Doritos and slamming back beer like a teenager at his first keg party. As the series progresses, he finds some purpose and redemption after saving his neighbour’s nerdy kid Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) from being beaten up by some 21st-century bullies. This spurs him on to take Miguel and other assorted “losers” under his wing and reopen the infamous Cobra Kai dojo – complete with the same toxically macho motto: “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.” This reignites his teenage rivalry with the karate kid himself, Danny LaRusso, who, not to be outdone, reopens Miyagi-Do Karate.

That kid is now a man in his 50s and the intervening three decades have been much kinder to Daniel-san than Johnny. He now owns several successful car dealerships, has a beautiful wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), two children and a massive house. Who said kicking a 17-year-old in the face was a bad idea? But for all his success and smugness, it’s clear he’s barely moved on from the ’84 All Valley Tournament any more than Johnny – his dealership’s catchphrase is “We kick the competition” and everyone who buys a car gets a free bonsai tree. You’re not Japanese, Danny, you’re from New Jersey.

Their roles have been, if not quite reversed, certainly rotated 90 degrees, and the underdog and protagonist is now Johnny. Luckily, his fleshed-out character is rich and complex enough to carry the extra weight – he’s still a dick, but a dick you can get behind. He’s also just a fantastic comic creation – a wildly inappropriate and obnoxious poster boy for arrested development. He’s an 80s dinosaur who somehow escaped the extinction event of political correctness. One typically rallying speech to his young charges at Cobra Kai begins: “I’ve called you names, I’ve humiliated you – some of you, I’ve hit. And for that, I don’t apologise.”

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Photograph: Netflix

But his gleeful awfulness would very quickly become very unfunny were it not for his students calling him out on it, which they do often and with an unusually dry wit. This comic interplay happens throughout the show – where it becomes too earnest, it’s undercut by Johnny, and where it becomes too horrible, it’s undercut by the teenagers. Gen X and Gen Z working to balance each other out. This is the true brilliance of the series, and the key to its success – deftly managing not to take itself too seriously but seriously enough for us to really care about the characters.

The fact the creators are all genuine lifelong fans of the original movies is also fundamental to its quality and clear in every second of the show. Nostalgia goosebumps come regularly throughout, from Mr Miyagi’s Japanese back garden and the music, to the 1947 Ford and clever use of original movie footage flashbacks, which adds real depth to the more emotional scenes.

Cobra Kai proves that even the most apparently sigh-inducing ideas can, if done with this much flair, humour and heart, not only do justice to beloved old classics but even expand and improve them. It really is the best around.

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