In 1984, audiences were riveted as teenage underdog Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) faced off in the final match of the All Valley Karate Championship against his rival: the big bad bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). It wasn’t a real fight; it was a movie fight (and I’m about to give you a massive spoiler).
In the previous round of the fight, Johnny had followed his evil sensei’s instruction to “sweep the leg,” and as a result, Daniel was badly injured. Would Daniel even be able to finish the fight? Of course he would! In one of the most iconic movie moments of the eighties, Daniel wins the fight with the crane kick, a move previously taught to him by his wise sensei Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). Described as a “no can defense” kick by Mr. Miyagi, the crane kick actually looks like it would be the most easily defended kick… like, pretty much ever. The move is highly forecasted, and Johnny – the defending All-Valley champion – inexplicably runs straight into Daniel’s foot. But that’s not really the point, guys. The point is that regardless, the moment still works and it works really well. It’s huge, in fact. The triumph of the good guy beating the bad guy here is so powerful that I challenge any viewer to not feel a rush of emotions.
The victorious fight I just described is the ending of The Karate Kid, the highest grossing film of 1984.A few years after its release, I was a little girl who wandered into her living room to find my dad watching a movie where a super cute teenage boy was talking to a pretty teenage girl at a Halloween dance. It was Daniel LaRusso and his crush Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). Only minutes later, Daniel was being chased from the dance by a group of boys in scary skeleton costumes. The pulsing horror music score underneath the ‘80s rock song proclaiming “danger!” made me worry that things were about to get very, very bad. I was right. Daniel had almost made it to the chain link fence when the boys caught him and started beating him up with karate kicks and punches. It got so brutal that one of the skeleton boys eventually shouted at the ring leader, “Johnny! Leave him alone, man! He’s had enough!” But Johnny’s reply was this: “AN ENEMY DESERVES NO MERCY!”
Just as I was about to cover my eyes, an old dude hopped the fence and kicked ass, leaving the skeleton boys writhing on the ground. This was Mr. Miyagi, of course, the man who would become Daniel’s karate sensei and lead him on a journey of courage and redemption.
After seeing The Karate Kid, Ralph Macchio became my celebrity crush and Elisabeth Shue became my idol. I had posters of them on my bedroom wall. Back then, I never knew the name of the actor who played the awful villain Johnny. His poster never went on my wall. In fact, there probably were no posters made of that guy. Nobody was clamoring for the latest Teen Beat magazine to see if The Karate Kid villain was the centerfold. That character wore a smirk and a red leather jacket, and he rode around on his motorcycle with his gang of karate minions from the Cobra Kai Dojo. Those guys had names like Bobby, Tommy, Jimmy, and (the only guy whose name didn’t end in “y”) Dutch. Johnny wore a scary skeleton costume, he broke his ex-girlfriend Ali’s boombox, and he laughed when Daniel got spaghetti all over his shirt. Oh, Johnny was just so horrible… or was he?Today, my favorite TV character is none other than Johnny Lawrence of the TV series Cobra Kai, which picks up 34 years after the All Valley Karate Championship. If you haven’t watched the first two seasons of the series yet, you are missing out on one of the best shows on TV today, whether you’re a Karate Kid fan or not. With presumably extra time at home on your hands (hello, Covid-19), you have the time to watch it now, and I promise it will lift your spirits during these tense times. To convince you to check it out, I’m going to tell you all about the show (without revealing any big spoilers).
The TV series is named after the karate dojo where Johnny trained in the ‘80s under the brutal sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). Cobra Kai takes us back to the San Fernando Valley in southern California and shows us exactly where Daniel and Johnny have ended up after all these years. Daniel is now a country-club-going, snazzy-car-dealership-owning family man. Johnny Lawrence is a down and out handyman whose head is stuck in the 1980s of his teenage glory days. He drinks a lot of beer, gets in trouble at work, and spews out insensitive gender and racial stereotypes that seem to come from a place of cluelessness more than malice. To blow off steam, Johnny cruises around the valley in his sports car, cursing the huge billboards advertising LaRusso Auto Group. It clearly irks him that his teenage rival has done so well in life while he has not. Johnny is basically a loser. But you can’t help but feel bad for him, because he’s also lonely. You can see that he’s trying in life but just keeps failing.When Johnny’s gangly teenage neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) is jumped at a local convenience store by a group of bullies, Johnny doesn’t intervene to save the kid. That is, until the fight bumps up against Johnny’s beloved sports car. And then, and only then, Johnny kicks some karate ass. The fact that he saves Miguel is an afterthought. However, Miguel is amazed by Johnny’s skills and begs his neighbor to teach him how to do karate. You see where this is going, right?
Wisely so, the first episode stays with Johnny, positioning him as the underdog anti-hero. The brief glimpse of Daniel positions him almost as the villain with a cringe-worthy LaRusso Auto Group TV commercial. By the time the credits roll on the first episode, even if you hated 1984 Johnny Lawrence, you’re definitely rooting for today’s Johnny Lawrence. And really, it’s not that outrageous to have Johnny as the protagonist of the series if you take into account the final moments of the 1984 movie when Johnny insisted on being the one to hand Daniel the karate trophy. In doing so, teenage Johnny showed his potential for growth and humility.
The show was created by filmmakers Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald, childhood friends and big fans of The Karate Kid. Hurwitz and Schlossberg launched the successful Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle franchise, and Heald was the story creator and one of the screenwriters of the Hot Tub Time Machine franchise (the original featured Zabka). This might make you assume that Cobra Kai is in a similar vein genre-wise to the filmmakers’ previous franchises (i.e. super silly comedy). And while the series is hilarious, full of witty moments and punch lines, Cobra Kai is also rooted in serious drama and anchored by serious performances and themes that address real-world issues.Much of the strength of the series lies in how clever its creators were in flipping the narrative on its head but staying true to the original. And in doing so, you might be surprised to find yourself reconsidering some of the events of The Karate Kid movie from Johnny’s perspective. You can find plenty of fault in Daniel for the ongoing rivalry between the two boys. Case in point: At the Halloween dance, Johnny was minding his own business – just rolling a joint inside a school bathroom stall (LOL) – when Daniel decided to antagonize Johnny by turning a water hose on him… WTF, Daniel?!
For fans of the movie, these callbacks to the original are brilliant. The TV series is swimming in nostalgia, yet I don’t believe that ever causes it to lose its new, younger viewers. Alongside Macchio and Zabka is a cast of fresh teenagers navigating their own present-day issues of bullying, fitting in, first love, insecurity, and independence. The coming of age themes ring true as the storytelling reveals the contemporary struggles that young people face today. Additionally, viewers are given flashbacks to the original movie to ensure that everyone tracks the ongoing drama between Johnny and Daniel. And oh, there is drama, indeed.One of the best things about Cobra Kai is that there are no clear-cut heroes or villains. There are simply complex characters with personal struggles who make mistakes. It’s worth noting that one of the basic rules of writing a movie screenplay is to “make your bad guy even badder.” Movies have two hours at most to take you on a journey, which means that you have to be very economical in how you write your characters. Your main character needs to have many layers, but there simply isn’t time to deeply develop the entire cast. Supporting characters often exist to serve the story’s main themes and to reveal more about the main character.
By contrast, TV is a longer form of storytelling that allows so much more breathing room for character development over time. And that’s perfect in a show like Cobra Kai, where much of the story exists in that complex gray area, where you find yourself rooting for one character and against another, only to have second thoughts by the very next episode. Without making anyone stereotypically “bad,” Cobra Kai is a show that’s packed with conflict, confrontations, and heartbreak.
After the first episode which primarily follows Johnny, the show intercuts between the lives of the ensemble of main characters. These characters include Johnny, Daniel, Miguel, and Daniel’s teenage daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser), who has recently made some new friends that her father is concerned about. You’ll also see other familiar characters from the original movie, but I won’t tell you who or when. The filmmakers do a great job of teasing that stuff out over time. One original character who is notably missing is Mr. Miyagi. Unfortunately, actor Pat Morita passed away in 2005, but the series still makes him feel very significant in the story. Daniel often reflects on the lessons that he learned from Mr. Miyagi as he navigates his present-day conflicts as a father, husband, businessman, and dude whose head is partially still stuck in his high school rivalry.
Overall, the writing is superb, and the performances are as well. The entire cast does a fantastic job, but there are two performances that stand out to me the most. The first is Zabka’s layered, nuanced performance as Johnny. He has definite comedic chops that will have you laughing out loud as he delivers his lines with the utmost seriousness. On the flip side, the subtlety in which he portrays a broken man will also break your own heart. He’s an actor who’s capable of revealing so much with just the slightest expression. It’s also inspiring to see a fifty-something actor who was mostly only known for a villain he played at age eighteen have a chance to bring the experience full circle by playing one of the leads in a series that further explores that very character. When Zabka goes to Comic Con or a fan convention today, it isn’t just as a nod to a character from over thirty years ago. That character is alive again with a growing fan base. If you watch any current interview with Zabka or Macchio, it’s apparent that both actors are loving their second chance at playing the iconic roles.The second stand-out performance in Cobra Kai is Maridueña’s portrayal of Miguel, who becomes Johnny’s first karate pupil. Maridueña has both a vulnerability and quiet confidence to him that makes his journey from a bullied kid into a karate kid believable and relatable. The dynamic between Johnny and Miguel is powerful. Johnny’s own teenage son (Tanner Buchanan) lives with his mom and wants nothing to do with his dad. Meanwhile, fatherless Miguel looks up to Johnny. At times, it feels like Miguel is the adult in the relationship and Johnny is the wayward child. They both have a lot to learn from each other.And oh, did I mention the fighting? The fighting in this series is AWESOME. And it’s not just the guys who get in on the action. There are some fierce female karate kids in this series too!
So your next question should obviously be: “How do I watch Cobra Kai?”
When the creators originally shopped the series around town, they had multiple bidders for it. They went with YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium), which was launching its own paid streaming network of original content. It seemed like a great home for the show at that time, but unfortunately, YouTube Premium didn’t move forward as planned and only developed a tiny bit of original content. Cobra Kai was one of its only narrative series, and it was definitely its biggest one. Season 1 aired on YouTube in 2018, and Season 2 aired in 2019. You could watch the first two episodes on YouTube for free (and still can). To continue watching, you had to sign up for YouTube Premium. I think a lot of people balked at paying for yet enough streaming network when this one had very little content on it. Cobra Kai just didn’t get the exposure that it deserved.More recently, additional ways to view Cobra Kai became available: You could rent the discs for both season 1 and season 2 from Netflix, but it was not available on Netflix streaming. Or you could buy the season 1 Blu-ray or DVD on Amazon (or other retailers). As far as I can see, a season 2 Blu-ray or DVD is not available for purchase right now. If I’m wrong on this, please let me know in the comments section below, because I want to buy it! A Collector’s Edition Box Set of seasons 1 and 2 was also released in limited quantities in late 2019. As of today, there is one listing on Amazon by a third party selling a used copy for a whopping $349.99.
About a month ago, I was saying to my husband that I hoped Cobra Kai would be moving to a bigger network soon. The pandemic has halted the production of movies and TV shows, and there is now a shortage of content. Thus, it would be the perfect time for someone to come in and offer to buy the series from YouTube.
And that’s pretty much what happened last week when Netflix acquired it. No official Cobra Kai Netflix release date has been announced yet, but the press release said that Seasons 1 and 2 will be available to stream “later this year” and that Season 3 will debut at a later date. This is really exciting news, because it means that the series will find a much larger audience and therefore, it will also likely be around for many more seasons. Which makes me very happy. Which should also make you very happy, because now that you’ve read my blog, I’m feeling pretty confident you’re going to watch the series now too… right?
So go watch seasons 1 and 2 right now, and then you can be like me… anxiously awaiting the release of season 3 on Netflix.
Sweep the leg, Johnny.
Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.