“Cobra Kai” – “Mercy” – Season 1, Ep. 10 (Netflix)
My favorite indicator of the quality of a bingeable television series is a subtle but critical one, and occurs naturally – almost a reflex – as the end credits roll on the season finale. The music swells triumphantly, and the goofy, ubiquitous little clock that counts down to trigger impending autoplay appears in the screen’s bottom corner. How fast in the moment during which you begin processing what you’ve just seen do you instinctively click through to start that next season? Sure, you have other things to do, theoretically, but this decision seems more pressing. Do you dispense with formalities and pick up the story in which you’ve just finished investing five or ten or more hours of your time again, simultaneously new yet also already in progress? Do you linger a beat or back out momentarily, maybe read the synopsis of Ep 2:1 first before committing? Or do you think, “that was pleasant”, and just leave well enough alone? I’ve reached this moment of truth/point of embarkation many times before with series both markedly better and appreciably worse than Cobra Kai, the wellspring that wasn’t for Youtube’s abortive attempt at carving out its own piece of the original streaming content pie – now resurrected on Netflix for an upcoming season three and freshly imbued with the buzz even well-established properties tend to receive from mere inclusion on its menu – and been far more emphatic if not always enthusiastic in my actions. Cobra Kai’s first season may betray its glorified web-series origins at times, and can be distractingly clunky and beyond corny in bursts, but it connects on an elemental level with the very specific viewer it always courted and earns its reprieve, not just on the juice remaining in its high concept but the strength of some surprisingly well-sketched characters.
I paused, read the synopsis of Ep 2:1, and then, content enough, pressed Play.
Released in 1984, John G. Avildsen’s The Karate Kid is my favorite underdog story of all time. In that, I suspect I am not alone. Bullied by SoCal karate punks, a quintessential fish out of Jersey learns life-changing lessons at the foot of an unassuming Eastern master and ends up winning the day, the girl, the big match, everything. From its narrative structure to its earworm soundtrack to the youthful verve that permeates its every frame – even from supporting actors then in their mid-thirties and early fifties – the film, despite a central conceit almost older than time, is an encapsulation of 1980s cinematic sensibilities worthy of preservation in a museum, and a brilliantly engineered, if still seemingly organic, head-to-toe crowd pleaser.* I care far less about its vastly inferior sequels, which failed to bottle the original lightning in increasingly trite ways, though I paid them the due diligence of at least one cursory screening each to confirm my suspicions. The truth is that I wasn’t pulled into the sequels because the central relationship between put upon Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and karate master turned maintenance man Mr. Miyagi (the late Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, in a truly iconic performance both Oscar-nominated and snubbed) was already established and solidified so beautifully in the original that it didn’t really have anywhere left to go. Part II shifted the scene dramatically from from the strip malls of Reseda to Mr. Miyagi’s Okinawa home, Part III brought back a classic villain (albeit the wrong one), and both piled on the overheated conflict until they were left gasping for air. The original’s magic is simple and undeniable by comparison, preserved in amber for all time, locked in a painting of a boat silhouetted against a still lake at sunset.
*Zombie consumers somehow unfamiliar and now running on near-empty following six months and counting of basically uninterrupted binge-streaming are well advised to check the original movie out before even sniffing around the series – multiple times if possible. It’d be nice if Netflix made that an easy proposition, but as of press time “The Karate Kid” isn’t available there, or on any other prominent streaming platform for that matter (unless the Showtime add-on for Hulu counts).
As a portrait of the special relationship between a scrappy high school punching bag and the father figure he desperately needed, The Karate Kid cannot be improved upon, and so its creative caretakers were unwise to try. Despite what its title implies, Kid’s most important character is not Daniel at all but, rather, Mr. Miyagi, a warm if enigmatic sage whose presence makes Daniel more interesting by association. Every other dynamic in the movie – between Daniel and girlfriend Alli, between Daniel and his mother, between Daniel and his pack of tanned tormentors – is sacrificed, either criminally shortchanged or simplified to the point of non-existence. This proves no detriment to the film itself, though fairly lethal to subsequent attempts to extend it as a viable franchise, substituting contrivance by the metric ton for character growth or any earned resonance. Cobra Kai’s foundational insight in rebooting LaRusso’s story for a new generation lies in recognizing the intrigue and potency inherent in the explosive yet almost completely unexplored relationship between Daniel and his nemesis, blond alpha-bully warhead Johnny Lawrence (go-to mid-‘80s douchebag turned meme-worthy journeyman actor William Zabka). Over thirty years have passed since Daniel crane-kicked his way to an unlikely win in the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship finals, and that moment has reverberated in unexpected, far-reaching ways, flipping the script completely on victor and vanquished alike. As its title rightly implies, the most important character in Cobra Kai isn’t Daniel either, but, rather, Johnny, now a self-loathing divorcee and absentee father living in DIY squalor in the same type of neighborhood he once looked down on as a big wheel social prick in high school. Following the sort of prototypical terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day you only truly see in movies, Johnny finds himself spiraling uncontrollably into his rival’s orbit.
One might wonder how two such magnetically attracted hotheads, and the apparently evergreen grudge between them, could possibly share the same area code for over thirty years without prior violent collision, but the truth is that the optimal dramatic conditions did not yet exist. Series creators and lifelong Karate Kid obsessives Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald must’ve sensed not only that there was much more to the Daniel-Johnny rivalry than the original movie suggested** but that without the focus on supporting, secondary relationships it conspicuously lacked, their long-awaited do-over might have the makings of a two-hour movie, or less, but certainly nothing more. The Heald-Hurberg triumvirate got right to work replacing their high concept’s low ceiling with an elevated floor, depositing the two adversaries into an odd modern day SoCal setting where the outcome of a decades old youth karate tournament somehow carries the same kind of importance a professional team championship might (presumably the Rams and Chargers haven’t yet moved to this Los Angeles). Daniel is now a prosperous family man, having followed the same kind of trajectory former Buckeyes, Vols, and Crimson Tide, etc. so often do by parlaying his lingering “All-Valley” fame into a thriving car dealership steeped in cheesy karate accoutrements (complete with the slogan, “We kick the competition!” and a free bonsai tree with every purchase). Circumstances force Johnny into a supplicant’s role to the at least outwardly friendly Daniel at a point where all he really has left is his pride. Johnny’s disgust at the situation leads him to an epiphany and a revelatory career change. He intends to resurrect the karate dojo at which he was once the star pupil, the infamous, intimidating Cobra Kai, this time as owner, proprietor, and sensei.
**Anyone involved in a long-term “bullying” dynamic, no matter on which side, probably recognizes, however grudgingly, that it’s not quite the simple equation the uninitiated always imagine. I might’ve legitimately despised the grungy upperclassman who so doggedly tried to make my sophomore year of high school complete hell before he graduated to Burger King, or prison, or whatever, but we occupied the same space for so long and I accidentally saw him in enough unguarded moments – some we even shared – that in my own moments of weakness, I can envision him, kinda, sorta, possessing at least some nuance. Sure, it requires a mighty suspension of disbelief and a well-tuned gag reflex, but I can’t rule it out as a possibility.
There are multiple ways to look at how the present day tensions between Daniel and Johnny are presented, evolve, and escalate. Some will think Cobra Kai provides tight if somewhat obvious plotting with winning character work alongside some fun details that enliven the margins and provide poignant callbacks to 1984. Others will think it fan service run amok, pandering to a sometimes distracting degree, with plotting that is obvious to a fault. Both will have valid points. Neither will consider it a masterpiece. Nor should either consider it a waste of time. I skew more toward the former pole, though some surprises surely work better than others. Indeed, anyone with a working knowledge of The Karate Kid, or dramatic television in general, will be hard-pressed to see new characters like bullied poor kid Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) or Johnny’s delinquent son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) as anything but eventual surrogates for the two leads, though there might be mild surprise at whose path they choose and how exactly they walk it. No points either for guessing that Daniel’s teenage daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) is much more than a pretty face, or to which boy the laws of dramatic effect dictate she’ll be initially attracted. Cobra Kai survives by trying to consistently subvert the knee-jerk expectations engendered in its viewer from years of absorbing The Karate Kid, shading its black-and-white world in disarming greys, and focusing on the breadth, if not always depth, of the kind of relationships it never had sufficient runtime to explore. The young supporting cast, particularly Mariduena and Mouser, are all pretty great, and do a solid job of adding weight and welcome levity to the proceedings without ever being a burden. Now co-leads for the first time ever, Macchio and Zabka each do decent, relatable, unobtrusive work.
Gone but not forgotten, Mr. Miyagi sought personal balance through the style of karate he once taught Daniel LaRusso as both a method of self defense and a metaphor for life. The ghost of the late Noriyuki “Pat” Morita hangs over the first half of Cobra Kai at almost every step. One imagines his loss in 2004 definitively shelved any attempt at reviving the franchise until Heald-Hurberg happened upon this new approach – not to mention keeping Daniel and Johnny from fatherhood until they were both pushing thirty – and it’s a tribute to their efforts that Miyagi eventually transforms from a totemistic dramatic anchor to just another character in a cast fairly rich with memorable ones. He remains Daniel’s patron saint, and the show’s, is seen in flashbacks and graveside visits, heirlooms and framed pictures. His memory animates and inspires Daniel to train again, and, more importantly, to teach. Johnny has, by this point, already discovered new purpose of his own in leading Cobra Kai in a new but not wholly unfamiliar direction. Heald-Hurberg are at pains to rethink and redistribute the original scales – providing concerned father and upstanding citizen Daniel some glaring blindspots and sharp, obsessive edges this time around, while ensuring Johnny, with his blunt worldview and timely, casual racism/sexism, is never wholly sympathetic despite his added dimensions – but always strive for balance. Cobra Kai wouldn’t be as successful as it is if Heald-Hurberg fell appreciably short on either count. As they must, all roads converge and eventually lead back to the All-Valley, with its nostalgic trademarks and attendant baggage. For once, I honestly had no idea who would win the final match, or who should, or even who I wanted to. The results surprised me without convincing me the story was finally finished. Much to the contrary.
And so, content enough, I read the Ep 2:1 synopsis, and pressed Play.