You HAVE To Watch This: Cobra Kai
The hallmark of a You Have To Watch This show is when the quality overshadows the concept. There isn’t much about the premise of The Expanse that separates it from Battlestar Galactica other than how good The Expanse is. It’s soooooooo good.
However, there’s a subcategory of You Have To Watch This shows. The “seriously?” subcategory. Shows whose premise implies a quality ceiling, and your You Have To Watch This friends need to convince you that it breaks that ceiling.
For example: Cobra Kai.
What Is Cobra Kai?
Set 35 years after The Karate Kid, Cobra Kai checks in on one time karate enthusiast Johnny Lawrence. Losing a martial arts tournament in the 80s set his life on a sad track. But when his meek teen neighbor Miguel gets bullied, Johnny sees a problem that can be solved with karate. One thing leads to another, and he stumbles into the role of sensei, opening a new dojo named after the dojo of his youth: Cobra Kai.
Is It Sooooo Good?
Not only is it so good, it’s so much more than the above description.
A Tonal Buffet
You might read the above and figure the show has a similar feel as the original Karate Kid films. A raw, contemplative, dramatic coming of age story.
Which it is. But it’s not just that.
Replace the zen presence of Mr. Miyagi with a clueless, middle aged has-been who peaked at 15 and wants to relive his glory days. Sound sad, or maybe funny? It’s both! It’s both in a big way!
Somehow, Cobra Kai turns 80s cinema’s biggest bully into this loveable protagonist that you feel sympathy for, while also feeling totally OK laughing at him.
You get frustrated at Johnny, you get frustrated on Johnny’s behalf. You take joy in his failures but root for him to win. Sometimes he feels like that he hasn’t grown up in three and a half decades, but it’s easy to see how he’s the victim of a bad upbringing that trapped him in a no win scenario.
Johnny Lawrence is complex. And he isn’t the only one.
You may have heard Cobra Kai described as The Karate Kid with the roles reversed. Or a retelling of The Karate Kid from the villain’s point of view. That’s sort of true in the first episode, where Johnny discovers that Daniel LaRusso, the man who knocked him off his pedestal, grew up to be super successful. When Daniel sees Johnny, he greets him jovially, and even makes a joke at Johnny’s expense.
The thing is, Daniel thought they both grew up and moved past that moment two thirds of their lives ago. It wasn’t Daniel bullying Johnny, it was the universe. But as the two characters kept crossing paths again, Daniel does lower himself to Johnny’s level, even as Johnny feels like Daniel keeps getting in the way of him elevating himself.
As the show explores their relationship, it also introduces new teens looking for direction. Miguel, the neighbour from earlier. Miguel’s best friend, Eli. Daniel’s daughter, Samantha. Her estranged friend of convenience, Aisha. Miguel’s bully who goes on a date with Samantha, Kyler. Their high school drama elevates to new levels of tension when karate starts influencing their lives, as well as the petty rivalry of two grown men and former karate kids.
In addition to comedy and drama, the show features a lot of intense karate action. Sometimes played for laughs, but mostly when a fight breaks out, it’s intense. And outside of sparring in dojo scenes, a fight in one episode leads to consequences for the rest of the season, if not the series.
Cobra Kai’s Journey
Part of what drew me to check out Cobra Kai was its journal. YouTube launched it as the flagship of its new Red streaming service. Depending on the list, YouTube is either the most used streaming service in the world by a lot, or not even in the streaming service conversation. YouTube Red was YouTube’s attempt to make sure they were in the conversation, and convert the popularity of the service into profit. Well, more profit.
YouTube Red failed quickly. Sharing two-thirds of its name with a porn site probably didn’t help, and may have lead to YouTube trying again with YouTube Premium. Premium’s still trucking along, but it’s more about watching content add free and as a background app than original content.
Cobra Kai moves to Netflix, and became the most popular show on streaming. Was YouTube Red so bad that having potentially the most popular show in the world didn’t make the service worth it? Or were viewers so unwilling to commit to another streaming service or a pay version of YouTube that even a show that turned out to be incredibly popular couldn’t convince people to try it?
Cobra Kai, you’re alright in my book. That’s as someone who may have seen some or all Karate Kid movies growing up, but with zero memory of them. It stands on its own, and stands apart from all other shows out there. From how it juggles so many competing feelings, to overcoming any nostalgia pigeon holes it could have ended up in.
It’s fascinating that Cobra Kai even exists, let alone that it survived a failed streaming service and found its audience. And it blows the mind that it’s as good as it is.