Sunday, May 13, 2018

"Cobra Kai," Season 1: review

[NB: spoilers.]

Designed as both a trip down memory lane for folks who grew up during the 1980s, and as a cynical ploy by YouTube to get people to subscribe to its YouTube Red service (ad-free for $10 a month*), the new dramedy series "Cobra Kai" continues the story of the rocky relationship between Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio, now 56) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka, now 52). It's been thirty-four years since that fateful 1984 All-Valley Karate Championship at which Lawrence lost to Larusso. Daniel has gone on to bigger things: he's become the most successful car salesman in the Valley (i.e., San Fernando Valley); he's also married and has two children, a sprightly daughter and a fat, lazy slob of a son. His family lives in a palatial home in the rich part of town. Johnny, meanwhile, works as a maintenance man and contractor, spending his days repairing damage to crumbling apartments and installing high-end TVs for rich, overprivileged clients who show no gratitude for his efforts. Johnny also drinks bottle after bottle of Coors, his head still swimming in bitter memories of the past. He blames Larusso for stealing his old girlfriend Ali (Elisabeth Shue), and he thinks that Daniel's winning front kick at the 1984 championship was illegal.

Late one night, Johnny sees a young teen named Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) getting beaten up by a group of bullies led by a gyopo named Kyler (Joe Seo). Johnny uses his martial-arts skills to defeat the bullies. Miguel, thankful, begs Johnny to teach him karate. Johnny initially refuses. One night, while he's out reminiscing under the stars, Johnny sees his car get rammed by a group of teen girls driving an SUV. Johnny yells at the girls, catching a glimpse of one girl in the back who—unbeknownst to Johnny—happens to be Daniel Larusso's daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser). The girls drive off; Johnny calls a tow truck, and it turns out that his car will be taken to Larusso's lot for repairs. Johnny goes to Larusso's the next day, and while there, he has an awkward encounter with Daniel, the old victim of his bullying back in the 1980s. Johnny also sees Samantha there and puts two and two together when Samantha hugs her dad. Now incensed, Johnny goes back to Miguel and tells him he'll reestablish the Cobra Kai dojo and teach Miguel karate. (The money for the dojo comes courtesy of Johnny's emotionally abusive stepfather Sid [Ed Holy Shit Asner!], who wants Johnny out of his life and is willing to pay a small fortune to keep him out.)

Johnny also has a son named Robby (Tanner Buchanan, looking like a young Val Kilmer), who is in the process of dropping out of school. Not content with being a mere delinquent, Robby is a small-time criminal, working with two older pals to score anything from laptops to spare auto parts. Robby loves his mother (Diora Baird), but she spends her days making money through prostitution. The boy has nothing to say to his father, whom he considers a loser. As the series progresses, Robby ends up finagling a job at Larusso's, and because Daniel has been looking for someone to train with, Robby begins learning karate from Daniel, knowing full well that his father would flip out if he knew Robby was taking lessons from an old rival. But Robby's relationship with Daniel deepens, and the boy begins to lose some of his cynicism about life and the world as he internalizes the teachings that Daniel passes along from his own mentor, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, seen in flashbacks).

Daniel's daughter Sam, meanwhile, realizes that Kyler, whom she has been dating, is the wrong person for her; the crucial moment comes when she happens to see Kyler bullying some runty students. She also begins to realize that her rich-girl circle of stuck-up friends is equally bad news. Although she's perfectly capable of defending herself, having been trained in Miyagi-do karate by her dad, Samantha appreciates it when, one day, Miguel—now well trained in Cobra Kai karate—steps in to defend her from Kyler and his gang while they're all in the school cafeteria.

For a humble, fairly low-budget series, "Cobra Kai" does an excellent job of giving us a tangled web of relationships. It also provides no simple or easy answers to the various questions it raises—questions like, "How do two men get over their past as bully and victim?" and "Can a delinquent kid transcend his rough life and forge a better future for himself?" Come to think of it, the idea of getting over the past and making a better future is a major theme of this series. Daniel and Johnny don't become close friends by the end of Season 1, but we can see that there's potential for friendship. Samantha, who drops the evil Kyler to date Miguel, ends up souring on Miguel when the aggressive Cobra Kai training warps Miguel into something the sweet-natured boy isn't, but here, too, we see potential for the relationship to be repaired. The season finale ends with the appearance of Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny's mean old sensei from the 1980s, promising even more complicated things to come.

The nerd term "fan service" was invented for a series like this: there are plenty of call-backs (nowadays, the kids say "deep cuts," i.e., references to things long gone that only true fans can appreciate) to the original, now-classic 1980s film that inspired this series: "The Karate Kid." "Cobra Kai" is slightly more about Johnny, however; much of the focus is on his redemptive arc. Johnny faces a series of both external and internal obstacles, making the path to self-improvement a difficult one. Part of the show's comedy comes from Johnny's almost Dirty Harry-like inability to relate to modern times: he's so thoroughly marinated in the past that he has no idea what Facebook is ("What's a Facebook?" he asks Daniel at one point), and he blithely spews politically incorrect opinions to anyone who'll listen.

There are moments when the series flirts with the ridiculous (especially in terms of some of its Dickensian coincidences), but for the most part, the dialogue and action remain realistic and relatable. Late in Season 1, for example, Daniel and Johnny are at a bar, using Facebook on Daniel's cell phone to track down Ali, who is an old flame for both of them. Daniel feels awkward doing this because he's a happily married man, but he and Johnny are on a mission of discovery, and what they discover is that Ali is living in Colorado, and she's a pediatric surgeon married to an oncologist. Daniel tells Johnny that he has never sent Ali a friend request, and she has never sent him one. Staring hard at the picture of Ali's husband, both men grimly agree that the guy looks like an asshole. That bar scene, to me, felt like an authentic moment, and it provided a plausible outcome for Ali, whom I doubt we'll ever see on the series. Johnny's son Robby is also realistically portrayed as a teen trying to find direction in life. Without his own dad as the father figure, he turns to Daniel to teach him some much-needed life-wisdom. From Daniel's point of view, Robby is like a second son—sort of a do-over for the fat slob of a son that Daniel actually has.

You can't have a series that's ostensibly about karate without featuring some fight choreography, so let's talk about that. William Zabka, the actor who plays nemesis Johnny Lawrence, actually has a green belt in the Korean martial art of tangsudo (often written Tang Soo Do). His moves are clean, crisp, and plausible. But the actors around him, including Ralph Macchio himself (Daniel), don't look so comfortable performing martial-arts moves. One exception might be Xolo Maridueña, the actor playing Johnny's protégé Miguel; while there's a tiny bit of awkwardness in his moves, he looks as if he could eventually become comfortable portraying a developing martial artist. That said, the fight choreography overall is less than impressive, and sometimes even cringe-inducingly awkward, especially during an All-Valley tournament scene toward the end of the season. Daniel's version of Miyagi-do karate still seems to rely too much on gimmicky tricks that end up playing a crucial role in combating an opponent later on. The overly mystical training style of Miyagi-do doesn't hold up well under scrutiny in these days of closely observed MMA bouts; the show's heavily edited fight sequences, with their many jump cuts, are evidence that the actors need a dash of movie magic to look like proficient fighters, which is too bad.

That said, I think "Cobra Kai" is more about story and relationships than it is about the martial arts, and on that level, the series has my full attention. The show hits all the emotional beats: there's humor, there's anger, and there's tension. William Zabka, now thirty-four years older than his 1984-era self, uses his aged features well to portray a sort of weariness and profound sadness that come from a life poorly lived. Ralph Macchio brings a twitchy Italian zing to his role as a much-older Daniel. While he hasn't shaken the baby-faced looks that he has been cursed with since the 80s, he does look older and a bit more subdued. He does a fine job portraying an imperfect husband and father who often rashly acts before he thinks and who, despite having been exposed to Mr. Miyagi's wisdom, still can't seem to see people and situations deeply. This rashness causes problems between him and his daughter, and between him and Johnny. If only Daniel could see how Johnny is trying to do better and make things right, much of the show's tension would be relieved. So in a sense, the show relies on Daniel's being a bit of a douchebag to propel its drama.

All of the supporting actors are well cast and likable in their roles. Joe Seo, as the bully Kyler, gets credit for being convincingly hateful at first, then for turning into a hilariously scrote-shriveled coward after Miguel hands him his ass in that cafeteria fight. The show gives its minor characters plenty of room to breathe, such that no one comes off as a mere stereotype or cardboard cutout.

Best of all, the show's complex and nuanced portrayal of Johnny and Daniel makes it difficult for us to root for one over the other. Each man can be an asshole; each man is also capable of being charming, deep, and even noble. Miguel sees Johnny as a father figure; Robby sees Daniel as a father figure, but there's a moment when Daniel tells Robby that he shouldn't think of Johnny as a monster: Johnny's just a man with a lot of demons, and he's Robby's true father. Since we can't really root for one man over the other, we end up rooting for both of them—to put aside their rivalry, to become friends, and to end this good-hearted series on a note of reconciliation and the promise of a better future.

*YouTube Red very quickly morphed into YouTube Premium after this post was originally published. It's the same service, just with a different name.


John Mac said...

Nice review. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout. Never a fan of the Karate Kid films so a lot of the subtleties you mention were lost on me.

I actually found Daniel's character to be quite unsympathetic--spoiled rich narcissist vibe. Hot wife though. Maybe in a future season she'll hook up with Robby--that's my kind of plotline! But yeah, the coincidences of the events that keep popping up do strain credulity. I'm going to watch season 2, or at least start it. The GF has already watched the first three seasons, but she doesn't seem to mind the repeat.

Thanks again for the review. Sorry I missed it the first time!

Kevin Kim said...

I reviewed Season 2 as well, so you can read that review, too, when you're ready, but after Season 2, the show moved to Netflix, and since I don't have Netflix, I haven't reviewed Seasons 3 and 4 (although I know what happens thanks to all the stray clips that end up on YouTube).

John Mac said...

I just started season 2 last night. I read the review after I'm done for sure. I see there is also going to be a season 5 for you to miss!