Cobra Kai is a real television show.
Maybe this is obvious to some of you, but when YouTube Red first announced a TV series based on The Karate Kid story, the whole thing sounded like a joke: at best a campy, kitschy paean to 1980s nostalgia, at worst a crass money grab.
But the 10-episode series is neither. Instead, it’s a rich story that revisits Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) 34 years after Daniel’s crane kick won him the karate tournament. But, as suggested by the title—which takes its name from Johnny’s dojo—the show has flipped the script, putting Johnny at the center. “My whole life went downhill with that kick,” Johnny says in the premiere. One of the biggest takeaways is that it’s all about perspective: My favorite moment in Cobra Kai finds Johnny re-telling the entire plot of the first movie from his point of view. Just as Wicked helped us see The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s angle, Cobra Kai is Johnny’s story.
Time has not been kind to Johnny. He’s stuck in a dead-end job, living in a cluttered apartment, drinking way too much and estranged from his son. The series provides some backstory on what made Johnny the way he was. He might have grown up in a beautiful house, but ugly things were happening on the inside, where his verbally abusive stepfather (Ed Asner) berated him on a daily basis. Now Johnny is stuck in the past, still listening to music on his Walkman (Google it), unaware of what Facebook is and wallowing in political incorrectness. He’s like if Archie Bunker did karate. He calls any boy who appears weak a “princess.” When one of his students tells him he’s on the spectrum, Johnny replies, “I don’t know what that is, but get off it.” When a girl wants to join his class, he tells her women aren’t allowed in Karate for “the same reason there aren’t women in the army. Doesn’t make sense.”
Daniel, on the other hand, has a beautiful wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), two children, a gorgeous house and string of car dealerships where every customer leaves with a bonsai tree. Over 10 episodes the series recreates the overarching plot of the first movie. Johnny meets Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), a geeky teen who’s picked on at school. Johnny’s troubled son, Robbie (Tanner Buchanan), starts working at Daniel’s dealership, at first to get back at his dad but soon because he realizes there’s much he can learn from Daniel. Daniel’s charming teenage daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), has fallen in with the popular kids at school and is dating the wrong guy. The kids have new ways of being cruel (viral GIFs and photo tagging), but the results are the same. Honestly I don’t want to say more than that about the plot because the show is so delightful that you deserve to watch it unfold for yourself.
So let’s talk about Zabka’s terrific performance, as he brings depth and nuance to a character he hasn’t played in decades. Or the great chemistry he and Macchio still share as adversaries who continue to dance around each other—always teetering on the cusp of friendship before something once again happens to renew their rivalry. The series works for fans like myself who remember only the most broad strokes of the movie (“wax on, wax off,” “sweep the leg,” how much I wanted my hair to look like Elisabeth Shue’s) and for fans like my husband, who delighted in every scene that was a callback to the movie (many of which went over my head). But I also think the series works for anyone who has never seen Karate Kid. The plot is strong and the script is clever. The show has just the right amount of self-awareness. There’s a great scene where Johnny and Daniel discuss Ali (Elisabeth Shue) as two grown men reminiscing about their first love. There’s another that takes one of the movie’s more famous scenes and makes a goofy joke.
It will come as no surprise, I’m sure, that the season culminates in the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament (how could it not?) but what will come as a surprise is that I found myself not knowing who to root for. The series excels at not allowing anyone to be truly evil or angelic, understanding that human beings are complex and cannot be summed up by a one-line character description. This is true not only for the adolescent characters, who take over the roles created three decades ago, but also for our former hero, Daniel, and our former nemesis, Johnny.
Along the way, there’s a great 1980s soundtrack (all the better to play on your Walkman), clips from the movie, a top-notch cast of supporting teen characters and perhaps a few too many training montages. YouTube Red cost $10 a month. Is Cobra Kai enough to make me sign up? Probably not. But would I pay $10 to watch Cobra Kai? Yes, I would. For the first time in my career, I watched all 10 episodes before writing this review. Not so much because I needed to (as I’ve said, I don’t want to spoil too much) but because I wanted to see what happened next. I simply couldn’t stop watching. And let me also say that while the first season comes to a very satisfying conclusion, there’s definitely a lot there for a second season.
Wax on Cobra Kai. Wax on.
All 10 episodes of Cobra Kai are now streaming on YouTube Red.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .