Friday, June 1, 2018

Bully for You: William Zabka wins in Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai, 2018 
Starring: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Courtney Henggeler

Back in the best decade of all time, the 80s, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was a bullying, karate-wielding enemy to Ralph Macchio's Daniel LaRusso in a film called The Karate Kid. You might have seen it. You might have thought it was cheesy and formulaic and I don't know, clunky (I say this lovingly about the original only, the sequels were both downright horrid). The film focused more on the story and less on the actual martial aspect of martial arts, but it was a popular film and a memorable work. Lucky for us, both Zabka and Macchio have returned to their respective roles in Cobra Kai and the overall experience is pretty sweet. YouTube Red is streaming the first two episodes for free; if you like what you see, a YouTube Red trial Membership is also free for one month. These episodes are short enough to binge in one night, easy, and if you're reading this review with any interest, you'll definitely want to.  

So it's very much the same kind of story, updated for 2018, but with some positive differences. For one thing, Cobra Kai has a somewhat oppositional focus: this is Johnny Lawrence's show, first and foremost (and yes, this will cause many to skip it on principal because really, what sympathy can a former bully really evoke) but hear me out and give it a chance. Bullies can change their stripes; some bullies can feel remorse! But even then, some bullies still make poor choices and lead others to make them, too.

Turns out, Johnny Lawrence is one such bully. Despite our assumptions during the events of Karate Kid, he didn't have such a great life even before he was Cobra Kai's golden boy, cruising the arcade or having fancy dinner dates with Ali, and all the other stuff that made him appear to be such a privileged, effective little jerk. This backstory along with Johnny's downward spiral after the illegal leg-sweep and subsequent choke hold from his Sensei at the film's final karate tournament make for a very different Johnny Lawrence experience. This isn't to say that everyone is sympathetic to him. In fact, outside the audience and perhaps one important supporting character, no one really is, least of all Daniel LaRusso. Though wealthy, handsome, and still besting Johnny at everything, the one-time Karate Kid isn't exactly as we remember him, either (truthfully he comes off as a bit of a douche, at least at first). 

This highlights another difference in the show compared with the film: nothing is absolute, not the morals of the characters, not the guarantee of a happy ending, and not even the promise of unconditional, good feelings toward our favorite people. We have David Chase's Tony Soprano to thank for complicated bad guys who come with depth instead of pure evil, and this concept in both Johnny's character, the characters with whom he interacts, and the progression of the series' events shows us that although the 80s were great, a lot of the screenwriting was really basic. We see now that it got a lot of things wrong because these stories aren't so neat anymore. Narratives are complicated because people are complicated; people who go to the movies (or watch television) don't necessarily want open and shut cases of good versus evil because they come off feeling fake or simplistic. We have baggage, we overreact, we hold grudges, and nothing ties up nicely anymore, not really. If it seems cheesy to think of an entire show revolving around a bully's if not redemption, then re-education, or if you don't want to
overthink things in this way, you really don't have to--there is still entertainment to be had among all this ideology. I like to think of it as a way for everyone who loved The Karate Kid to get a huge, acknowledging shout-out in the form of being gifted more time and experiences with characters we weren't ready to let go of yet. 

Not sold yet? Okay, there's more: 
Flashbacks (full video sequences)
Music (Poison, Foreigner, The Alan Parsons Project, Ratt, Bruno Mars, Dean Martin, and more!)
Environments (Daniel's first apartment, the mini-golf place, Mr. Miyagi's house)
The New Blood because of course there has to be a new aspect to an old rivalry (aka family drama!) 

There's quite a bit of profanity not suitable for elementary school kids as well as some harsh sexual innuendo and bullying that occur in a high school setting. Middle and high school kids will probably be interested (mine were) but they definitely aren't the target audience for this show, the people who grew up with Daniel and Johnny are. Kids who didn't watch the films are going to come away from it with a much different take on who they're aligned with, whose struggles they connect with, and who they want to win even though none of this is very straight-forward (my two older kids went immediately with Johnny from the beginning but wanted very different things from him as time went on). Take a look: 

Who will love this show: Fans of Zabka (trust me, there are significant numbers who appreciate his work as an actor in The Karate Kid, Back to School, National Lampoon's European Vacation, and Just One of the Guys as well as his work as a Oscar-nominated director of the short live-action film, Most), fans of The Karate Kid franchise, nostalgic GenX-ers, underdogs, people used to being underestimated

Who won't be into it: Martial Arts purists, the overly religious, fans of Macchio (if he has any; I heard from a credible source that he's a dick IRL).  

Hard goodbyes are a thing of the past: second season is slated for 2019! 


Nik said...

I can't believe I forgot about this. We just watched the first two episodes and I'll never get enough of this. The music, the flashbacks, all of it. So great!

Unknown said...

I can't wait for the next season! Honestly, my favorite show of last year.