Almost the best thing about Cobra Kai is the response, somewhere between bemused and appalled, it has generated among woke millennials and Gen Z-ers. One reviewer noted with concern that neither of the two featured karate schools is run by someone of Japanese ethnicity. Another squirmed at two middle-aged men’s almost Trump-level inappropriateness, when while discussing the qualities of a mutual old flame they referred to their inamorata’s ‘tightness’.
Yes. It’s one of the reasons we Eighties dinosaurs love it so. Cobra Kai is our safe space. It’s our Helm’s Deep of unreconstructed sexism in an otherwise Orcish horde-overrun Middle Earth of gender fluidity, #MeToo and micro-aggressions. This lost world we dimly remember from our youth — the one where the sole point of girls was to persuade them to have sex with you, where fast red sports cars were a source of penis-extending pride, not breast-beating eco-guilt, where God made people fat, ugly or red-headed as His gift for you to taunt them mercilessly at every opportunity — really did exist no matter how hard the subsequent pantywaist generations might try to airbrush this golden era from our history.
Not that I appreciated Cobra Kai’s connection to this properly till I’d watched a few episodes (very swiftly because they’re only 25 minutes long). My initial impression of Cobra Kai was that this was a somewhat cruddy spin-off from the Karate Kid movies. Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio, the original Karate Kid) has grown up to become a rich, successful, cheesy businessman running a car dealership in the Valley. Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the blond antagonist whom LaRusso beat in the final fight scene, is now a deadbeat with a drinking problem and an estranged son. Lawrence has returned to the neighborhood in order to reestablish the Cobra Kai karate school.
So far, so desperate. Your first thought is: washed up stars of yesteryear trying to capitalize on a cult movie series they were lucky enough to be in three decades ago. The acting feels slightly daytime TV, on occasion, Mexican daytime TV. But don’t be fooled: this is all part of the insidious charm which makes Cobra Kai a sly masterpiece. Quite possibly it does the whole Eighties nostalgia thing even better than Stranger Things, while expending considerably less effort in doing so.
It began life two years ago on YouTube (during the channel’s brief experiment with commercial production), where it was a big hit, and has now turned into an even bigger hit on Netflix. I totally see why. Apart from the beguiling amateurishness, which captures the mood of the original movies so perfectly it feels like you’re watching on a VHS rental from Blockbuster, it deals with big, enduring themes — like honor, revenge, pride, loyalty, failure, redemption and aging — sometimes touchingly and movingly, while never losing its sense of humor or its self-deprecation.
The script is a cut above the production values: knowing, witty, often deliciously contemptuous of modern snowflake culture — which is why Johnny Lawrence, the unreconstructed Eighties throwback, is given all the best one-liners: ‘There’s no girls in Cobra Kai for the same reason there’s no girls in the Army. It doesn’t make sense.’ He’s right, of course. And the writers know it. Sure, they offer a sop to contemporary values by having one of the most brutally effective fighters in his dojo turn out to a be a piggy-faced, big-boned girl of color (whom we very much like as a character). But that’s just a case of having their cake and eating it. In their hearts they know, as the viewer knows too, that the hero of this show is not goody-two-shoes Danny (who is perfectly at home), but neanderthal Johnny (who thinks it totally sucks).
It’s a very clever reversal of roles, all the more entertaining because it is a subversive critique of contemporary mores. The reason it gets away with it — even on a channel as woke as Netflix — is that there’s sufficient ambiguity to allow for the opposite reading: as a critique of Johnny’s outrageously antediluvian values. After all, his son Robbie (Tanner Buchanan), the series’ implausibly pretty heartthrob, loathes him; his finances are a wreck; and, unlike Danny, his spiritual guru is not a delightful, ethnically appropriate, Congressional Medal of Honor-winning, benign Yoda-style sensei, but rather a thuggish bully preaching relentless aggression.
If Cobra Kai loses its nerve, then Johnny — and his trainees — will come to see the error of their ways and realize that, just like Mr Miyagi taught us in the original movies, violence is not the way and defense is the best form of attack. But I don’t think it will, and that’s why we fans respect it. For cheap TV, it has a high degree of subtlety and integrity
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2020 US edition.