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‘Cobra Kai’ Is About How Some Guys Never Get Over High School

And a few other random thoughts about the ‘Karate Kid’ sequel

It was inevitable that Cobra Kai was going to be an exercise in nostalgia. The YouTube Red series, which checks back in on the lives of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) 34 years after the events of The Karate Kid, offers the fan service we’ve come to expect in our reboot/remake culture. But amidst the cozy callbacks to the 1984 movie — fear not, “Wax on, wax off” makes an appearance — the show also features a surprisingly sobering commentary on the dangers of living in the past. For millions of Karate Kid lovers, wallowing in Cobra Kai over 10 episodes is a chance to relive a childhood favorite. But for Daniel and Johnny, who find themselves reuniting to rehash their shared history, the trip down memory lane proves a lot more fraught. In their own way, each guy (both in his 50s) has never fully gotten over high school — and they’ve spent the rest of their lives suffering the consequences.

When we meet Daniel and Johnny, they’re a study in contrasts. Johnny, once the young, strapping bully, is now a divorcee and a drunk, living in a cheap apartment and tormented by billboards he sees around town advertising Daniel’s very successful luxury-car dealership. Johnny clearly peaked in his teens — nobody thinks he’s cool anymore, especially his estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), a juvenile delinquent who wants nothing to do with his deadbeat dad. When Johnny impulsively decides to reopen the old Cobra Kai dojo where he trained, there’s nothing noble or inspiring about the choice: He desperately needs money, and karate is the only thing that ever made him feel special.

You’d think Daniel would be a little better off: After all, he’s got a thriving business, a beautiful wife (Courtney Henggeler), two sitcom-cute children and a massive home. But Cobra Kai suggests that all that success is its own byproduct of unresolved teen issues. Daniel’s dealership offers free bonsai trees to customers — a nostalgic holdover from his years training with Mr. Miyagi (played in the original films by Pat Morita, who died in 2005). But when Johnny comes back into his life, this slick, wheedling entrepreneur quickly reverts to the timid, picked-on kid who decades earlier moved from Newark to Reseda with his widowed mom. Those scars haven’t healed — they’ve merely been papered over with material possessions and stature, even though Daniel was the one who won that fight at the end of The Karate Kid.

Cobra Kai is often a breezy, knowingly cheesy show, but there’s real poignancy at its center as these two middle-aged men posture around one another, trying to retain the upper hand regarding a dispute they should’ve gotten over years ago. But because they haven’t, their feud affects everyone in their orbit — particularly their offspring and mentees. Johnny’s rebellious son starts working for Daniel’s dealership, never revealing who his dad is but savoring the fact that Johnny will flip when he finds out. Daniel’s daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) starts dating Johnny’s star pupil Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), never telling her father because she’s afraid how he’ll react.

The feud even reduces its key combatants to children. Daniel tries to use his business connections to destroy Cobra Kai, and when that doesn’t work, he futilely wields his influence as a board member of a local karate organization to uphold a lifetime ban against Cobra Kai so Johnny’s students can’t compete in the All-Valley Tournament — the same meet where Daniel defeated Johnny.

Occasionally, Cobra Kai puts the two guys together in the same scene, but when they talk, it’s always about the past — either about the girlfriend they’re both still fixated on (Ali, who was played by Elisabeth Shue) or their moldy karate rivalry. They even live in the same area where they attended high school — they’re trapped in a perpetual adolescence of insecurity and male competition. Neither man ever really recovered from the original film’s epic finale: For Daniel, it was the triumphant beginning of a new chapter, while for Johnny it started his slide into irrelevance.

All of us carry around our teenage baggage, still harboring the slights, heartbreaks and public humiliations that were inflicted on us as kids. Ideally, we grow and learn from those experiences, finding maturity and wisdom in the process, but Cobra Kai demonstrates that, oftentimes, the exact opposite happens. Daniel and Johnny don’t square off on the mat this time, instead drafting other people to spar by proxy. They haven’t made peace with the past, so they’re forced to keep fighting it.

Here are a few other takeaways from Cobra Kai. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Was Johnny the hero all along?

In 2015, video producer J. Matthew Turner put together a YouTube essay that, although tongue-in-cheek, made a sorta compelling argument that we’ve been watching The Karate Kid wrong all these years. Rather than the story of a sweet, sensitive kid being bullied by a karate champ and his goons, maybe the movie is actually the dark tale of “a violent sociopath who moves to a California town and begins tormenting a local boy and his friends”? From Turner’s perspective, Daniel is the real bully and Johnny’s the misunderstood hero:

Like a lot of viral fan theories, Turner’s video was clever and completely disposable. But it turns out that the creators of Cobra Kai — which include the writers of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle — seem to have taken it pretty seriously. Although the show is told from both Daniel and Johnny’s perspective, Johnny is the one who comes across as more sympathetic.

The series doesn’t paint Daniel as the bad guy, per se, but it does have Johnny describing to Miguel the events of The Karate Kid — except in this version, Daniel steals away Johnny’s true love Ali and ruins his life. Whether or not you buy Johnny’s version of events, Cobra Kai goes out of its way to make us understand how this guy could see himself as the victim all these years. To that end, the show also delves into Johnny’s unhappy backstory, fleshing out why he felt so alone and how karate helped give his life meaning.

Zabka may not be an actor of great depth, but he brings a beaten-down sadness to Johnny that strengthens Turner’s argument. Think about it: Daniel won the trophy, won the girl and made something of himself. Meanwhile, poor Johnny has been nothing but a failure — maybe things would have worked out differently if that punk Daniel hadn’t come along. For a lot of kids who grew up relating to sweet, sensitive Daniel, Turner’s video and Cobra Kai are a bit of a shock. In the end, though, perhaps we’re all somebody else’s villain.

#2. Can you name a single YouTube Red show?

Cobra Kai is distributed on YouTube Red, which is the site’s subscription service that provides videos without ads. Starting in 2016, YouTube Red began rolling out original TV series and movies. I decided to take a look at their output, and I barely recognized any of these programs. Seriously, who watches this stuff?

Thus far, they’ve tried to cash in on familiar properties, like Step Up: High Water, which is a TV series inspired by the dance-drama films. Or they go for meta-comedy, such as Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, where Veronica Mars/Party Down actor Ryan Hansen plays a fictionalized, egotistical version of himself who works with an actual cop (played by Samira Wiley) to catch bad guys. (How meta is Ryan Hansen? A running joke was that the show within the show was on YouTube Red — and that no one the characters meet have ever heard of it or believe it’s an actual thing.)

Even when YouTube Red gets some press, it backfires. One of the site’s bigger coups was picking up the distribution rights to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken out of last year’s Toronto Film Festival, but that only blew up in the company’s face after the Oscar-nominated documentarian confessed to a history of sexual harassment, provoking YouTube Red to scrap the deal.

It’s very likely that Cobra Kai will be the introduction for a lot of people to YouTube Red, which first got rolling with programs starring younger YouTube celebrities, such as Scare PewDiePie. But as the service’s global content chief, Susanne Daniels, explained last month, they’re going to be broadening away from just millennials to snag aging, nostalgic Gen-Xers. “It takes time to build that brand to a place where you feel like you are really taking off,” she said. “In time, I’d like to see us offer shows that appeal to [the broader adults 18–49 demo]. But what you’re seeing us do right now is focus on the heavy user of YouTube, who tends to be a little bit younger. That’s a smart place for us to start as a strategy.”

In other words, if you’re not familiar with YouTube Red, it may be because you’re old.

#3. Elisabeth Shue isn’t in ‘Cobra Kai’ — at least not yet.

When Cobra Kai was announced in August, it wasn’t long before online speculation circulated regarding Shue’s possible participation. The producers were tight-lipped, but that didn’t stop Bustle from poring through her IMDb page to see if there were gaps in her schedule that might have been secretly used to film Cobra Kai.

“Having completed work on the movies Death Wish and Battle of the Sexes this year, the iconic actor doesn’t appear to have any other projects currently lined up,” the site reported breathlessly. “Which could suggest that Shue is potentially on-board with the show, but hasn’t announced her involvement yet.” The Washington Times went a step further, reaching out to Shue in October. With a laugh, the Leaving Las Vegas actress would only say, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I feel like Ali was definitely a part of their past, but I have to wonder if she really is a part of their future.”

Now that I’ve seen Cobra Kai, I can say that, no, Ali doesn’t put in an appearance in Season One — although, the show ends with a cliffhanger that indicates everybody involved is hopeful that they will be a Season Two. But if Shue does show up in the next season, let’s all fondly recall this 2017 interview where she says that, back when they were making The Karate Kid, she wasn’t sure that a pipsqueak like Macchio could legitimately play a guy who was good at karate:

Seriously, everybody in that movie was picking on poor Daniel.