Cobra Kai: Season 1 Review – A Kick-Ass Surprise
Reviewed by Casey Riggins.
(This review contains mild spoilers for the entire first season of Cobra Kai.)
Cobra Kai is thus far 2018’s biggest TV surprise. It’s a show that has no right to be as good as it is. Debuting on Youtube Red of all places early May, with a pitch that sounded like some internet fan-fiction or sketch, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. Yet somehow it’s comfortably surpassed those expectations and become a talking point of summer.
The original Karate Kid film “saga” starring Ralph Macchio as the lead concluded in the late 80s with a disappointing third outing that was only enjoyable thanks to some deliciously hammy acting from its chief villain. Time moved on, and in the early 90s a fourth instalment attempted to kick-start (pun intended) the franchise again this time with a young Hilary Swank as the lead. It failed. Then came the 2010 reboot, and although fairly enjoyable in its own right, it didn’t do well enough to garner any more sequels. And so the franchise lay dormant once more…
Cobra Kai picks up some 30 years after the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament of the first movie concluded, with Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso besting his final opponent Johnny Lawrence. Smartly and unexpectedly, the premise of the show flips the premise of the original movie on its head. Rather than following a ‘grown-up’ 50-something Daniel, we’re brought back into this world through the eyes of Johnny, played by William Zabka.
We learn that Johnny’s life has been miserable in the intervening years since his defeat. He’s lost his place in the world, become an alcoholic, and is estranged from his teen son Robbie. Worse is that Johnny’s tormented by Daniel on corny TV commercials and on billboards around town. However, a chance encounter with bullied young neighbour Miguel eventually encourages him to restore the Cobra Kai dojo of the show’s title, and teach today’s “pansy-ass generation” a few lessons.
It would be fair to say that William Zabka isn’t exactly a hugely known actor having only starred in a handful of lesser-known films and TV over the years since the original film, but he more than proves himself as the lead of the show. He shapes his bully caricature from the first movie into a three-dimensional character, with nuance and depth. Watching his transformation into unlikely new Sensei is a joy and you will find yourself rooting for him, despite his questionable, but frequently hilarious methods (he’s not exactly a poster child for the PC crowd).
The series naturally catches up with Daniel, who has become a successful and wealthy car salesman. He too is shown to be a flawed individual though. He’s turned his Karate victory and teachings into little more than marketing gimmicks, and neglected some of the core values taught to him by his old Sensei and father-figure Miyagi (the late Pat Morita). But over the course of the run, Daniel rediscovers what he’s been missing in his life.
Unlike the original movies, the show realises that the world can’t always be viewed in just black and white, as a good and evil type of place. Johnny and Daniel are shown here in both lights and many shades in-between. In one brilliant scene late on in the run, Johnny retells the events from his side where he views Daniel as the bully of the first film (and no doubt a nod to a certain viral Youtube video). But perhaps most fun is seeing Johnny and Daniel finding some common ground, for instance in an unintentional carpool karaoke session that eventually leads to them drunk in a bar reminiscing on old times.
But it’s not just the oldies here, there’s a whole new young cast bringing the show up to date with more modern takes. Xolo Maridueña is endearing as Miguel Diaz, essentially one of the new Karate Kids, but this time under Johnny’s tutelage. Tanner Buchanan’s Robby Keene, by contrast, starts the show in an utterly contemptible place, but soon grows into much more. Meanwhile, Mary Mouser’s Samantha, Daniel’s daughter, is caught in the middle of it all. There’s also some good support from the other supporting younger cast, not to mention Courtney Henggeler as Daniel’s wife and voice-of-reason Amanda LaRusso.
Of course, you’d expect a show like this to feature some action and while it’s not overly frequent, when it’s done, it’s done well enough. The fighting choreography isn’t exactly up to the standard of shows like Daredevil or Into the Badlands, but it’s competent and much better than the original movies. A school canteen scene, and the final tournament being notable highlights.