After multiple permutations of “The Karate Kid” – including the 1980s movies, a gender switch and a 2010 remake – the original players are reunited in “Cobra Kai,” a new series designed to kick up attention for YouTube Red. For the most part, it’s an extremely clever revival, an overachiever that knowingly plays off the title’s kitsch factor while evolving the characters and augmenting the cast in savvy ways.
The killer stroke comes in heavily building the show around Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the leg-sweeping bad guy from the first film. As the show presents him three-plus decades later, Johnny is portrayed as one of those guys who peaked in high school – enduring dead-end jobs, estranged from his kid and living in an apartment where empty beer bottles are part of the décor.
Moreover, Johnny is constantly reminded of his failures by the success of his one-time rival Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who’s living the good life in Encino thanks to a string of car dealerships, which he promotes with inescapable TV ads and “We kick the competition” billboards.
Johnny stumbles into the idea of teaching karate, reviving the Cobra Kai dojo, as a way of getting his mojo back, and not incidentally helping out a nerdy kid, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), who’s subjected to his share of abuse at school. There’s an extra level of connection on the junior level, too, beginning with the fact that Miguel’s classmates include Daniel’s daughter (Mary Mouser), who has fallen in with the mean girls and boys – the kind of brats that her dad once had to endure.
Consisting of 10 half-hour episodes, the season builds toward a tournament (some old habits die hard), and inevitably, there are other recycled notes built into the program’s DNA. But “Cobra Kai” certainly exceeds expectations, and it’s impressive how organically the show establishes this latest set of wrinkles, augmented by Technicolor flashbacks to events from the past.
It helps that Johnny is a genuinely complicated character, someone who has clearly experienced a lot of hardship, yet who still embraces distasteful remnants of his teenage years, starting with that “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy” mantra. As for Daniel, having grown into an accomplished adult doesn’t mean he’s totally shed dining out on his old karate glory days.
With so much nostalgia out there – and more sure to come thanks to “Roseanne’s” recent ratings – “Cobra Kai” has landed at just the right time. And as we’ve seen with Hulu and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it only takes a few well-placed hits – and kicks – to put a fledgling program service on the map.
“Cobrai Kai” premieres May 2 on YouTube Red.