Imagine if one of your favorite childhood movies got a five-hour sequel that was everything you could’ve ever wanted and more. Well, if you love The Karate Kid, now you don’t have to imagine it. It’s here and it’s called Cobra Kai.
Coming exclusively to YouTube Red on May 2, the 10-episode series tells a story in the world of The Karate Kid set decades after the films. Yes, all the original films are canon here (even the fourth one, The Next Karate Kid, which starred a young Hilary Swank), but the story is mainly concerned with the first two. This is the story of what’s happening to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in 2018, and the circumstances that bring the former rivals back to each other’s throats. Mainly, it’s Johnny’s decision to restart the one thing Daniel hates more than anything: Cobra Kai.
I need to admit something: I am a Karate Kid superfan. I’ve seen the movies innumerable times. I love the soundtrack, the tone, the characters, all of it. I am 100 percent not coming at Cobra Kai from a place of objectivity. Despite my love—or maybe because of it—I was extremely skeptical about the idea of this show, and ready to pounce if it wasn’t faithful to the source material. But I held out a small sliver of hope that it would work.
So, which would it be? All my anxiety was relieved in, literally, the first second of episode one. Immediately, it’s evident Cobra Kai is in the right hands. Those hands belong to executive producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg. Though the trio is best known for R-rated comedies like Hot Tub Time Machine and the Harold and Kumar films, Cobra Kai is not like those at all. There’s humor, but no more or less than the original films. Instead, Cobra Kai is a show that totally gets what made The Karate Kid so special. It’s as much a continuation of the Karate Kid story as it is an homage to its legacy, and that works, in large part, because Cobra Kai perfectly mimics the tone of the original films. The original Karate Kid films have a touching earnestness to them, but also a weird, ‘80s edge, especially when viewed back through history. Cobra Kai beautifully blends those together with its new spin on The Karate Kid story. It’s very aware of itself and delivers just the right amount of winks and nods to the first movie and its sequels, but without distracting from the new story it’s telling.
Cobra Kai wouldn’t be a success if that’s all it was, though. No one (well, except maybe me) wants to see two men in their 50s fighting each other because they had beef in high school. Thankfully, the heart of Cobra Kai is a new generation of karate kids. First there’s Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who is kind of the Daniel of the story; he’s a young kid who moves into a new apartment, gets bullied, and asks the building superintendent there to teach him karate. That super just so happens to be Johnny Lawrence.
There’s Johnny’s son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who hates his father with a passion, and Daniel’s daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), who Daniel is losing touch with. Those stories and others give the show a reason to exist in 2018, while also providing Daniel and Johnny enough motivation to bring back the past.
These stories work best when they share some DNA with the original movies, and work a little less well when they’re completely on their own. But even when the show slows down a little, there’s always some Karate Kid magic to bring it back. Sometimes it’s just a single line or shot; other times it’s a small piece of music or crucial story connection. Then, there are scenes that are straight up, 100 percent ripoffs of the movies. And yet, they are never overdone. Even in the moments where it feels like the show is going to go over the top, things quickly reign back in. The creators know these jokes and winks only go so far.
Additionally, the series works in large part because Maridueña is crazy good as Miguel. He’s got a great story arc throughout the series, and is continually sympathetic and easy to root for, which makes the fact he’s learning karate through the “evil” Cobra Kai very compelling. Robby, unfortunately, gets a little short-changed compared to the other characters. He’s a key component in the plot, though, so his lack of development hamstrings some of the season’s more climactic moments. And yet, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort and trajectory of telling a story that feels very much like Karate Kid, but still feels new.
Reprising their original characters, Zabka and Macchio both start off coasting on the leftover charisma of their 20-year-old selves, so there are moments where each gives an occasionally cringe-worthy line delivery or reaction. However, as the show goes on, both actors, Zabka in particular, get increasingly comfortable in their older, wiser skins. By the last few episodes, they’re turning in amazing performances as Johnny and Daniel’s older, wiser incarnations.
All that said, Cobra Kai still feels like a bit of an enigma. Undoubtedly, this is a show by the fans for the fans. If you are a Karate Kid fan like myself, I’m confident it will win you over with its unabashed adoration for the franchise, and you’ll also be more willing to forgive the show’s hiccups because of it.
On the other hand, I honestly have no idea how a non-fan will react to this. The show is such a love letter to the movies that, while it works on a basic level, I’m not sure it would hold the same appeal for people coming into cold. Without that nostalgic touchstone to build upon, maybe the kids aren’t as interesting. Maybe the melodrama is a bit too much. Maybe Zabka and Macchio aren’t as endearing as they come off. I honestly don’t know, because I love the series too much. Nor do I know if any of that matters on a show that lives on a YouTube subscription service.
What I do know is that I, a Karate Kid fan, fucking love Cobra Kai. It made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me pump my fist in the air out of sheer joy. It delivers a familiar story with just enough modern touches to warrant the return to a franchise I’ve loved for my entire life. This is the Karate Kid sequel I never knew I wanted, but am damn sure glad to have. Bring on season two.
Cobra Kai premieres on YouTube Red May 2. Here’s a feature on the making of the show.