'Cobra Kai': TV Review | Tribeca 2018

Maybe not the best around, but nothing really keeps it down.
5/2/2018

YouTube Red's 'Karate Kid' sequel may be a one-joke premise, but thanks to Ralph Macchio's and William Zabka's likable work, it's more entertaining than you're probably expecting.

Everything to do with YouTube Red's Cobra Kai sounds like a bit of a joke.

A 10-episode, half-hour dramedy sequel to The Karate Kid, picking up the rivalry between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence 34 years after the Oscar-nominated film? Hailing from the creative teams behind the Harold & Kumar films and Hot Tub Time Machine? Introduced to the press with a Television Critics Association press-tour standoff between Ralph Macchio and Billy Zabka?

It's the stuff of a three-minute Funny or Die short or, if somebody felt ambitious, a 15-minute Adult Swim event, probably featuring Paul Rudd channeling his nostalgic enthusiasm for an audience of Gen-X insomniacs.

The thing you don't expect is for Cobra Kai to be pretty decent and to fill its entire first season with enough homages, twists and reversals to be much more consistently entertaining than it has any right to be.

It's definitely not great, but as a Daniel of a certain age who grew up being casually and jokingly called "Daniel-san," I'm not really sure if the original movie, which I must have seen dozens of times, is great either. At this point, Karate Kid is just woven into my DNA and Cobra Kai is designed for viewers whose hearts are prepared to leap at a Joey Esposito guitar chord or a narratively pointless visit to a familiar Valley location or a half-second shot of a vintage yellow car.

Maybe you don't have to be a sucker for Karate Kid to enjoy Cobra Kai, but it sure helps.

The pilot, written by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald (a college newspaper colleague, in interest of full disclosure), finds Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) living a sad life in Reseda, bumming off his stepfather (Ed Asner in a brief, cantankerous cameo) and lamenting his decline from high school glory. Daniel LaRusso (Macchio), meanwhile, has become a big success, running a luxury auto dealership with a kitschy martial arts theme. Johnny lives alone, a deadbeat dad with no connection to son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Daniel has a lovely wife (Courtney Henggeler), a popular daughter (Mary Mouser) and a wisecracking son (Griffin Santopietro). Each can track their divergent path to the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament and a flying kick that Johnny still maintains was illegal.

Johnny's life, so on the skids that homeless people pity him, gets a jolt when he sees new neighbor Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) getting picked on in a strip-mall parking lot and Johnny's old karate reflexes kick in. A resurrection of the Cobra Kai dojo might be just what Johnny needs to get his act together and what Miguel needs to survive high school. It also may trigger Daniel's PTSD and revive one of the great rivalries of our time, with shades of Tin Men or Used Cars or any story in which insecurities turn adult men into bickering, pranking children.

One quick factoid to make Karate Kid fans feel old: Pat Morita was 52 when he first played Mr. Miyagi. Billy Zabka is 52 now; Ralph Macchio is 56.

Another quick factoid to make Karate Kid fans feel old: Cobra Kai is almost certainly YouTube Red's attempt to age up its demos, a project designed to be watched by Gen X parents with their YouTube Red-savvy kids, constantly pointing out references to the original movie, references sometimes as subtle as a callback '80s song choice or passing name-drop of a supporting character, but usually as clear as the large montages of Karate Kid that pad episodes with impunity. All of your favorite Karate Kid scenes get replayed in the series, some a couple of times.

This makes it really difficult to assess how Cobra Kai would work as a standalone series if you had no awareness of Karate Kid at all. The series has a conventionally constructed underdog sports narrative that gains some nuance because of how occasionally smartly Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald mirror the main arcs and relationships of the movie, and particularly because of how they upset our expectations for these characters.

The inspirational uplift of Karate Kid is cut here with a raunchy and immature comedy that only lands fitfully, the better to keep YouTube audiences from experiencing an excess of sincerity. In this mode, the scribes have made a show that could also be called Bad Sensei and take its place in that Bad Santa/Bad Teacher/Bad Moms genre of stunted grown-ups in positions of unearned authority or responsibility interacting with children who are, at heart, probably more mature. Johnny is vaguely racist, homophobic and xenophobic, all of the things that made him a villain in 1984, but in the 2018 context of the show, he's a flawed hero, an unreconstructed male relic of a time before political correctness was a thing.

"If you're not aggressive, you're being a pussy and you don't wanna be a pussy. You wanna have balls." Johnny instructs Miguel at some point and his pupil replies, "Don't you think you're doing a lot of genderizing?"

There's a lot of that here, the show judging Johnny and mocking those who judge him equally. Yes, he's one of those teachers positioned to learn as much from his students as they learn from him. If memory serves, Mr. Miyagi didn't really start learning lessons from Daniel-san until the reverse fish-out-of-water sequel, so Johnny is ahead of the game.

Having Miguel being Hispanic is an important nod to the demographics of contemporary Reseda, but don't look for much consideration of three decades of socioeconomic shifts in the Valley. More effort is put into comparing how kids are bullied today, humiliating gifs and social media trolling replacing actual physical menacing, not that Cobra Kai is immune to the scary pleasures of a skeleton Halloween costume.

Nothing in Cobra Kai would work at all if the cast weren't surprisingly respectable. Or maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Macchio's spare recent résumé already got a boost with his supporting turn in The Deuce, and his comfort with the funnier side of Daniel as a stuffy, Asian-appropriating dad won't shock anybody with a memory of My Cousin Vinny. Zabka probably should have gotten a bigger boost out of his better-than-everything-around-him cameos in later seasons of How I Met Your Mother, and he's very good-natured in lampooning and pointing out the distance from the WASP-y pretty boy he used to be. Zabka is very well-preserved and his solid karate moves remain intact  even that sets up a pleasant contrast with the eternally boyish Macchio, whose martial arts form was always a thing to chuckle at. Cobra Kai can't replace the gravity that Morita's Mr. Miyagi and his somber and specific backstory brought to Karate Kid, so it honors the character's memory and moves on.

The younger cast matches well with their Karate Kid equivalents. Mariduena has a Macchio-esque earnest callowness. Buchanan isn't exactly Zabka-esque and Mouser isn't a quintessential blond California girl like Elisabeth Shue, but there's something comparable in his slick handsomeness and her girl-next-door appeal. All three characters shift in interesting ways as the first season progresses. For all the levels on which Cobra Kai is derivative and tonally inconsistent, it absolutely delivers a more complicated set of characters and dramatic stakes than Karate Kid. And just in case that sounds like it's deviating too far, let me assure you that the season still builds to an exciting and truly fun karate tournament.

My instinct after 10 episodes was to be suspicious of the second season teased in the finale and to feel like this might be the point at which the series' flimsy core gag runs out of juice. Of course, since I never would have believed Cobra Kai had even these 10 entertaining episodes in its premise, I'll be interested to follow the story, which had somehow better involve a journey back to Okinawa.

Cast: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Mariduena, Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan

Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald

Premieres on Wednesday, May 2, on YouTube Red.