A couple years ago, I watched the first two Karate Kid movies with my children, and honestly, they weren’t that jazzed about them. I know, I was shocked too. I assumed they’d be all about it, just like I was, and end up karate chopping everything in the house with a hand towel tied around their head. But I suppose I’ve been a father long enough to know that assuming my children would be interested in something I was interested in was a pretty stupid assumption. So naturally, when the first two seasons of Cobra Kai hit Netflix, I thought about watching it with my kids. But then realized that they’d probably just complain and ask, for the millionth time, to watch Spongebob. So I decided to watch the show alone.
I was 11 when the first Karate Kid movie hit the big screen, and let me tell you, it rocked my world. As a young, poor boy from a broken home who wasn’t very tall, or very strong, or very athletic, I couldn’t help but feel a pretty deep connection with Daniel. But I’ll be honest, after watching the movies, I hadn’t thought much about what Daniel and his high school bully Johnny had been up to since Daniel kicked Johnny in the face at the All Valley Karate Tournament.
Well… someone wanted to know, apparently, which leads us to Cobra Kai on Netflix. And let me tell you, Daniel and Johnny both seemed to have peaked in high school. Johnny is a racist, misogynistic alcoholic with a pretty nasty case of toxic masculinity. And Daniel is a well-off car dealership owner who uses karate chops in his commercials and gives every person buying a car a free bonsai tree.
Okay, I know, that description alone doesn’t sound like a selling point for this show, but my goodness, somehow it really works. A lot of Cobra Kai’s charm is nostalgia. It draws on a lot of themes that made the original movie work so well, with ’80s music-themed punching and kicking montages, and high school kids trying to find their cool while facing one bully after another.
One element that has really hooked me is Johnny’s character development. During the show, we learn a lot more about why he was such a dick in high school and why he is now a middle-aged dick. But there is this struggle in him between trying to be a better person and the disturbing lessons in toxic masculinity he learned from his stepfather and his former Sensei, the poster child for total manipulative dick-faces, John Kreese. (Man, I hated that guy in the show.)
I’ll admit, the acting isn’t amazing. But hey, that was also the case for the original movie. And yes, some of the lines are cheesy, and there are moments that are predictable because the plot lines run similarly to those in the original movie. But at the same time, there are also a number of clever surprises that keep things interesting.
What Cobra Kai does so well is show how so much of those fires between people that keep them arguing and fighting and hating each other can be chalked up to little more than a heaping pile of misunderstandings. There’s a clever tension in the show. And it’s hard not to say to yourself while watching, sure, there must be Breaking Bad-style super villains in the world, but in real life, we are much more likely to encounter a Johnny Lawrence. And while there’s (still) so much to hate about Johnny, there is also an understanding that there is so much going on around him to create his asshole way of life — and that understanding is ultimately what makes him a surprisingly enjoyable character.
Going back to what really hit me personally with the original show, Cobra Kai continues that theme of finding surrogate fathers. My dad left when I was nine, and he was in and out of my life, and jail, until he died when I was 19. I was always on the search for someone to fill that void, and this show really leans on two young characters looking for some paternal inspiration to make it through their formative years — another element that’s making Cobra Kai a top 10 show on Netflix.
So my friends, if you are a child of the ’80s, and Karate Kid really hit you at the right time, you’re gonna want to check out Cobra Kai. There is some strong language, but not too bad. And some examples of underage drinking, which is something to keep in mind when trying to decide if you want to watch it with your kiddos. But on the whole, I’m really enjoying this show and the revival of some of my favorite childhood characters — and I have a feeling you will too.