I was able to binge through Cobra Kai over the weekend, the new Youtube Red show, created by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who also created Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. I think this show deserves all of the attention that it’s getting.
Essentially, Cobra Kai is a TV series reboot of the Karate Kid franchise. The premise of Cobra Kai is centered around Johnny Lawrence at age 50, following the downward spiral his life took after the events of the first Karate Kid movie. It essentially canonizes the popular online theory that Daniel LaRusso was, in fact, the antagonist of Karate Kid, at least from Lawrence’s point of view. The plot of the show delves into Lawrence hitting rock bottom and hatching a plan to restart the Cobra Kai karate dojo after reluctantly taking a young, vulnerable, bullied kid named Miguel under his wing.
Not only is the show incredibly well made, with humor and emotion perfectly balanced, it’s a series that delivers strong themes about fatherhood and mentorship, the way perspective blurs the lines between hero and villain, positive masculinity and self-determination. I would hazard to say that it’s not only a show that’s fun to watch (and it is, the ride is fun as hell), it’s a show that people should watch.
Throughout the show, the narrative explores the topic of fatherhood and mentorship in a way that shows the impact, positive or negative, that father figures have on their children’s lives. Lawrence, it’s revealed, owes a lot of the situation he’s forced to overcome to the influence of his nasty father figures: his greedy and resentful step-father, Sid, and the sadistic, abusive Sensei Kreese. When he recreates Cobra Kai, it’s clear from the get-go, and illuminated further through flashbacks, that his goal is to give kids what he valued from the institution: a strong spine, the ability to survive in a hostile world, self-pride, confidence, and the strength to carve their own path.
Fatherhood is woven into the fabric of the show. Miguel lost his father and is looking for a role model in Lawrence that he’s not sure he wants to be, or can live up to. Lawrence struggles with his relationship with his own biological son. Lawrence’s son, Robby, struggles with his anger and lack of direction attributed to his absentee father. LaRusso’s parenting struggles are central to the show and, when he gains his own pupil later on, his mentorship style is showcased as well. In all cases, mentorship is stressed as a positive and necessary force in the lives of the kids on the show who form the new generation of karate kids.
Lawrence’s influence is juxtaposed against the teaching style of LaRusso in terms of style, but not in terms of goals. Where Lawrence stresses self-determination through endearingly crass platitudes like ‘never take no for an answer’, LaRusso stresses the same objective Miyagi style, by subtly training it into his pupil via clipping bonsai trees. While the two men are clearly enemies, it’s obvious that they have quite a lot in common. That’s where the lessons on perspective come into play.
At the show’s beginning, the lines of good and evil are clearly drawn, as you remember them from the original Karate Kid. Then, they’re instantly flipped — just like the internet theory, from Lawrence’s perspective, LaRusso is easily seen as the villain. A pompous douche who plasters his name on everything and obnoxiously derides and looks down on Johnny for no reason. As the series goes on, the shades of grey begin to creep in. Lawrence isn’t all good, and LaRusso isn’t all bad. As it turns out, it’s a matter of perspective.
This thematic element extends to the kids in the show as well. So much of the conflict in the show is built out of dramatic irony — an event, viewed from character A’s perspective, looks horrific and unforgivable, but when the audience learns more deeply about how the event looked from character B’s perspective, it appears perfectly rational. This leads us to a dramatic conclusion that I don’t want to spoil. It’s all woven together expertly, and the disparate narrative arcs come together in a way that seems natural and unforced.
Positive Male Role Models
One of the best things about the show is its focus on positive masculinity. Masculinity, as a term, has been under a spotlight in society, somehow controversial. This show does a great job in showing exactly what positive masculinity looks like and the dangers of kids lacking examples of that kind of masculinity. Before Lawrence’s guidance, Miguel is weak, easily picked on, and allowing life to wash over him. He’s unable to manifest anything he wants. Before LaRusso’s guidance, his pupil is aimless, looking to impress thugs and morons in a misguided bid to get negative attention from his father.
Cobra Kai, through often imperfect characters, lays out the message clearly through both of its male leads: be strong, be assertive, manifest your destiny, don’t flinch, be a good man, don’t be a bully, work for what you have, have honor. This is a message that young men need which there was a ton of in the 1950s, as imperfect as those times were, in TV Westerns like The Rifleman, and it’s in stark contrast to both the meek feminization men see in a lot pop culture, and the repugnant thuggishness that’s so seductive to young men without male role models, perfectly on display with its two young male stars, Miguel and Robby.
All that aside, the show is just, simply put, a fantastic show. The writing is great, the characters are likable and interesting, the arc is thrilling and hooks you well. I highly, highly recommend Cobra Kai and can’t wait for season 2. It’s definitely the best show to have come out this year, and a strong contender for the best show to have come out this decade.