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‘Cobra Kai’ Isn’t Just for Fans of ‘The Karate Kid’

What could have easily been a lazy reboot instead turns out to be a smart, nuanced look at how the past controls people.

Cobra Kai, the 34-year-old sequel to The Karate Kid, was officially released on YouTube Red last week, allowing viewers to check back in on Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence as middle-aged men still haunted by memories of the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament. The concept just screamed “lazy reboot,” but, seemingly against all odds, the show is actual quite good. Initial reviews weren’t just a product of fan chumming. Series creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg managed to make a fairly thin premise into a genuinely fun meditation on how men see themselves.

Despite Daniel being the protagonist of the original film, Johnny is the unemployed, borderline alcoholic main character of Cobra Kai. Johnny is attempting to rebuild his life by also rebuilding the Cobra Kai dojo. Along the way, he ends up reigniting his decades-old rivalry with Daniel, who has built a happy life for himself.

At first, it seems like the show might be setting up a role reversal. Johnny, the former bully, seems to have become a sympathetic hero while Daniel, one of cinema’s greatest underdogs, has transformed into a smug villain. But Cobra Kai is smart enough to avoid that obvious choice and, instead, paint both characters with a finer brush. Yes, there is nuance. Yes, there is characterization. Yes, motivation is explore.

No, nobody saw that coming.

By the end of the second episode, it’s become clear why both characters see themselves as the hero and impossible to not root for Johnny — despite the fact that he’s far from perfect. Can Johnny still act like an aggressive shithead from time to time? Yes, absolutely and he’s also prone to playing the victim and blaming others. But his heart is undeniably in the right place. He wants redemption and, to his credit, he seems to understand that he must earn it.

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Daniel, for his part, is packed with contradictions. On the surface, Daniel has it all: great family, good business, and the admiration of his community. But things aren’t that simple. Daniel is a victim of his own successes. He’s become arrogant, complacent, and a bit cruel.  When he first runs into Johnny at his car dealership, he can’t help talking a little bit of shit in front of his employees. He kicks the man while he’s down. That said, he seems like a good dad — he has justified concerns about his daughter’s social circle — and an otherwise decent if self-regarding individual.

Cobra Kai’s ability to avoid framing Johnny or Daniel as the show’s clear hero is its greatest strength, as it keeps the show from feeling like an unnecessary retread of a beloved film for the sake of exploiting nostalgia. Instead, it cleverly reframes the classic “slob vs. snob” narrative from the original Karate Kid in such a way that the inevitable showdown doesn’t feel like it has an inevitable result.

That said, though this is certainly the most successful YouTube Red show of all time, Cobra Kai is not without flaws. Most notably, no one from the new generation of kids stands out. Instead of feeling like real people with their own distinct personalities and motivations, they all feel more like chess pieces for Johnny and Daniel to control in their ongoing grudge match. Miguel, Johnny’s protege, is especially one-dimensional and has no real discernible character traits despite getting by far the most screen time of any of the kids.

Cobra Kai can also rely a bit too much on references to the original Karate Kid, even cutting back to scenes from the 1984 film just in case the viewer somehow forgot about the source material. And here’s a bit of warning for parents: This show is not for young kids, as it features adult language and some off-color jokes (mostly about handjobs).

Still, the series is an unexpected triumph that manages to find some genuinely compelling things to say about how seemingly insignificant moments can set people on wildly different paths. It is currently unknown if the show will have a second season but given the show’s hype and critical acclaim, it feels like an inevitability. And so long as Daniel and Johnny remain trapped in their unending cycle of conflict, we’ll be watching.