Perhaps no one asked for a TV update to the Karate Kid films, so we could see the promising martial arts rivals in their sad middle age. YouTube has made one anyway. Cobra Kai is a ten-part comedy series from YouTube’s growing TV streaming service, featuring Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (still played by William Zabka and Ralph Maccio respectively) 34 years on from the original 1984 film.
The once-popular bully Johnny is now a messy, lonely adult who wakes up every morning to the world’s most depressing breakfast (wafer ham: fried, slathered in ketchup, eaten with his bare hands), heading to odd jobs in his old Pontiac Firebird. His former nemesis Daniel (the movie’s “kid”) is the suited, gleaming face of the LaRusso Auto Group with a picture-perfect family. Their rivalry is reignited when Johnny reopens the karate studio where he learned to torment Daniel: Cobra Kai.
This is a show about two grown men who want to kick each other in the head, so there’s a lazily macho mentality here. Johnny attacks a group of teenage boys in episode one (we’re expected to be on his side). Elizabeth Shue’s character from the Karate Kid films is not here (instead, Daniel’s wife is played by Courtney Henggeler, who would have been three years old when the original was released – and she is featured less than their stunning teenager, Samantha). It’s not toxic masculinity exactly, but semi-poisonous – potentially inflammatory laddishness you should take an antihistamine for. But mostly, Cobra Kai pokes fun at these middle-aged men with a slippery grip on their own identities. Johnny will surely learn from the new “pussy generation” he derides. It has all the well-meaning fun of the original – with just enough of an update to be enjoyable in 2018.
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman