Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.
COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.
It’s actually better than the original movie.
Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.
1) A dark, gritty treat for adults
Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.
What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.
COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.
2) It’s much, much funnier
Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.
COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.
3) Even minor characters shine
THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.
COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.
4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow
In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.
Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.
COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.
Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.
His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.
There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.
It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.
Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.
The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.
Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.
The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.
VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.