Being a kid in the 1980s was pretty fucking miserable, so I had no particular incentive to revisit them, which seems to be the primary point of Cobra Kai, the decades-removed sequel to The Karate Kid franchise. Since Jenn and I are always searching for half-hour comedies to watch together, we took a flyer on this unlikely choice. While there’s a glimmer of a good idea here, what starts as a clever dialogue with the past eventually devolves into a painfully self-aware pastiche of an era best left in the dustbin.
The early promise of the series is its focus on the villain of The Karate Kid, ruthless pretty boy Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). As a teenager, Johnny was rich, self-absorbed, violent, and generally awful. Three decades later…well, he hasn’t improved much. Plus, he’s fallen on hard times, now an alcoholic anachronism who lives in a shithole apartment, with a failed marriage and an estranged son in his wake. To add insult to injury, his old rival Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) — the heroic “Karate Kid” himself — now runs a successful car dealership with billboards plastered all over the San Fernando Valley, regularly reminding Johnny of his epic failure. When Johnny hits rock bottom after losing his job, he goes on a bender…only to have his old karate instincts kick in to rescue a teenaged neighbor named Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) from a group of bullies. Motivated by Miguel’s enthusiasm to learn how to defend himself, and later by his hatred of Danny, Johnny brings back Cobra Kai — the “no mercy” karate dojo of his youth, reimagined for the modern era.
I can’t really describe how little I care about The Karate Kid. So it was rather a surprise when the early episodes of Cobra Kai sunk their hooks in, thanks largely to Zabka’s cagey re-imagining of his toxic male character for a new era. Still terrible, living in the past, out of touch with the world he’s grown into, Johnny is kind of a walking tragedy, still struggling to shake off the miserable programming of his fascist sensei. In the show’s first season, there’s something interesting and rather entertaining about how Johnny’s collapse from selfish privilege makes him more relatable — and something hilarious about his reactions to Danny’s new life as an insufferable, glad-handing success story. This sly restructuring of the duo’s dynamic, combined with a judicious deployment of comically jarring stock footage from the old movies, made Cobra Kai feel crafty and slick, holding its source material at an arm’s length while nodding and winking at it.
Unfortunately, the show doesn’t live up to the promise of its initial set-up. As the focus shifts away from Johnny’s point of view to create more balance in the rivalry with Danny, the amusing metafictional veneer falls away. Instead of an outdated property being smartly filtered through a modern sensibility, it starts to feel more and more like the outdated property itself. The show’s decline starts with a clumsy, unconvincing season one finale, and persists through season two, which feels like a unsophisticated, half-assed attempt to create straight-up eighties-style pop culture, three decades after the fact. Instead of riffing on and lampooning the era, it starts to clumsily re-create it, in all its cheesy, sentimental, and unrealistic bluster. Zabka remains likeably hateable, and there are a handful of decent gags and other pluses, like Courtney Hengeller’s appealing turn as Danny’s straight-talking wife Amanda. (Amanda’s nicely delivered commentary on the destructive stupidity of the dojo rivalry frequently mirrored my inner thoughts.) But by the end of season two, which may feature the most outrageously ludicrous season finale in the history of TV, I had lost all faith in the show. It’s a real shame, because the unlikely premise showed some unexpected promise in the early-going, before the writing lets it all down..