Tuesday, May 08, 2018

"Cobra Kai" and YouTube Red

Unless you've been under a rock this whole time, you know that YouTube has been aggressively marketing its paid service, YouTube Red, which allows you to watch YouTube free of all advertisements as long as you pay a subscription fee. YouTube lures the customer in via free-trial memberships, and lately, the video platform has been sweetening the deal by marketing a new YouTube-exclusive series: "Cobra Kai," the continuation of the story of 1984's "The Karate Kid," in which young, wimpy Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) gets bullied by Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, who was also the villain in "Back to School") and learns karate from Mr. Miyagi (Oscar-nominated Pat Morita).

In the 80s film, Daniel eventually faces Johnny in the All-Valley Karate Tournament, and he scores the winning point with a crane kick (essentially a stylized front kick). Set in 2018, "Cobra Kai" picks up the story 34 years later: Johnny Lawrence, still haunted by his loss, is now a handyman the way Mr. Miyagi was, and he spends his days cleaning out gutters, fixing fried circuits, and getting yelled at by pampered rich people. Down on his luck, drunk half the time, and studiously neglecting an estranged teenage son, Johnny takes his beat-up car in for repairs at the dealership with the lowest prices in town: Larusso's, owned by the wildly successful businessman Daniel Larusso, whose corny car commercials show Daniel using lame karate moves to chop and kick at digitally animated prices. Daniel has a teenage daughter to whom he has taught Miyagi-do karate. She's sweet on a gyopo dude named Kyler, but Kyler is part of a group of delinquents who beat up on Miguel, a wimpy kid much in the spirit of Daniel's younger self. One night, Johnny happens to witness Kyler and his crew going after Miguel; Johnny steps into the fray and beats the teens up with his "strike first, strike hard, no mercy" style of Cobra Kai karate. Kyler, now sporting a shiner, gets invited to dinner at Daniel's house in what's supposed to be a meet-the-parents sort of evening. Daniel finds out from Kyler that Johnny is the one who gave Kyler the black eye, and Daniel also learns, to his dismay, that Johnny has reopened the old Cobra Kai dojo, in the spirit of his mean old master Kreese (Martin Kove, who's actually quite affable in real life).

It's a very cool and tangled setup. Daniel is fine with letting go of the past, but Johnny still seems to live in the past. Daniel's daughter starts off as sweet on Kyler, but she eventually comes to like Miguel more, especially after Miguel demonstrates his own growing prowess in Cobra Kai-style karate during a cafeteria fight with Kyler and his buddies. Daniel, who can be impulsive and unreasonable, thinks he needs to shut down Johnny's new dojo because it promotes an overly aggressive philosophy of combat. Daniel's daughter is beginning to fall for Miguel—one of Johnny's students. Much of the current tension between Johnny and Daniel arises from various misunderstandings, which is what you'd expect from a comedy (the series is billed as a "dramedy"). Johnny's delinquent and rebellious son, meanwhile, seems to hate his father and to think of him as a loser. One YouTube commenter speculated that the son might hook up with Daniel and begin to learn Miyagi-do karate as an act of rebellion, much to the chagrin of Johnny, although that potential plot twist seems too on-the-nose to me.*

The series is titled "Cobra Kai," which clues the viewer in to the fact that Johnny Lawrence is the main focus, with Daniel Larusso as something more like a foil. The first two episodes of "Cobra Kai" are viewable on regular YouTube; YouTube's hope is that the viewer will subscribe to YouTube Red to see the remaining episodes of Season One. I'm debating over whether to sign up for YouTube Red's free trial; Ralph Macchio even has a promo in which he cynically says we should sign up for the 30-day free trial and binge-watch "Cobra Kai" (before unsubscribing). That's a pretty ballsy advertisement, but there's a bit of subtle psychology involved: the tactic behind free trials is that the viewer signs up, then after the 30-day period, the viewer forgets to unsubscribe, or he just never bothers to unsubscribe. This method of trolling for subscriptions always nets a certain percentage of less-conscientious viewers. YouTube is gambling on exactly that: a lack of conscientiousness, laziness or spiritual inertia, and an actual desire to continue experiencing an ad-free YouTube.

So I'm tempted to get the free trial. "Cobra Kai" isn't perfect, but it's written well enough to compel my attention and even begin to root for some of the characters. (In truth, I'm hoping for Daniel and Johnny, who are from two very different worlds, to become friends.) It's a bit surreal to see 1980s-era actors, now in their fifties, stepping back into the roles that had made them famous back in the day (Macchio is currently 56; Zabka is 52), and that's one of the factors that make "Cobra Kai" so compelling. Do I go for the YouTube Red 30-day trial, or do I wait for Season One to end up on Amazon Prime video in a few months? Hmmm...

*UPDATE: Episode 10, a four-minute clip of which is available on regular YouTube, seems to show Johnny's son in a Miyagi-do uniform, being coached by Daniel, so I guess the boy does cross the line and learn karate from his father's rival.

1 comment:

Charles said...

I saw the trailer for this and was tempted... but I probably won't do it.