Cobra Kai

September 21, 2020

I have watched the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, the thirty -years after the fact sequel to the iconic 80’s movie The Karate Kid.

I loved it. This surprised me, given my vocal suspicion of movies and TV shows that rely on nostalgia to generate audience interest, and this show is all nostalgia, to the point where if you haven’t seen The Karate Kid, there’s really no point to it. So what’s the difference? I think Cobra Kai takes that nostalgia a step further and actually deconstructs it, forcing a reassessment of the original thing. It’s a neat trick.

Remember that Trapper Keeper cameo that annoyed me in Stranger Things? There’s a Trapper Keeper reference in the last episode of the second season of Cobra Kai, and the teenager in the scene says, “I don’t know what that is.” Yes, the show is saying, we remember the 80’s. We even remember them fondly. But that was thirty years ago and your worldview needs to move on. Johnny has not moved on, and it makes him ridiculous. It’s aware of its references in a way that I didn’t think Stranger Things accomplished.

Within a couple of episodes it becomes clear:  Johnny is dumb, and Daniel is shallow. Johnny decided at some point that intelligence was the same as weakness and so avoided it. Daniel is focused on his image and all his reactions are based on how something will make him look. “Car salesman” is usually Hollywood shorthand for, if not the outright villain, then vanity and greed. What a bold move, making the previous hero of the franchise a car salesman. Now, it’s a little more complicated than that, of course. But still, this is one of those decisions I really admired in the show.

Necessarily, Cobra Kai asks you to go back to the original movie with this assessment. And it holds. Johnny is dumb, Daniel is shallow. (And yes, I’ve seen the YouTube analysis that claims that Daniel is the true bully of The Karate Kid. In fact, I know the guy who made it. I played accordion on a music track he used in a film school project. I sure hope he’s racking in the $ from all these new views. And holy cow Ralph Macchio and William Zabka look like freaking babies. I’m old.) These are two men who learned entirely the wrong lessons from their defining high school moment, and it’s kind of sad watching them flail. But also, they very much bring this on themselves.  The show is a judgment of cheesy 80’s ideals of heroism and depictions of villainy, and also teen movies in general. How often were 80’s heroes actually vain and selfish? And how often were the villains just dumb?

This show makes you go back and reassess every 80’s movie trope you thought you loved. It’s pure soap opera and very self aware. I laughed in every episode. There’s this knife edge between earnest and cheesiness, and the show frequently falls off on one side or the other. But I think that every moment is the result of intentional decisions. It’s really smart and really dumb at the same time, but since every dumb moment is so well thought out it swings back around into smart.

There’s a sequel to Top Gun in the works, I’m to understand. Yet another 80’s paean to action where the hero is actually vain and selfish rather than heroic (to be fair, the original film did a good job of pointing this out). I’m now very curious what direction it’s going to take. Will it be in earnest or will it make us reassess the original? One can hope for the latter, because Top Gun is also chock-full of those earnest 80’s tropes, and I’m not sure pure nostalgia will carry a sequel.

I remember when Cobra Kai first aired, hearing an interview with Ralph Macchio. He said people have been pitching Karate Kid sequels for decades, and he always turned them down. They didn’t offer a good reason to go back and revisit those characters. But this one, he said yes to, and at least for me, it’s pretty clear why:  This had something new to say about 1) the original movie, 2) these characters, 3) the very idea of relying on nostalgia in storytelling.

 

 

3 Responses to “Cobra Kai”

  1. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    I was surprised by how much I got into the show. I quickly came to a conclusion, and kept it until the last episode: the show’s doing some *amazing* themes — getting old, having your best moments in your youth and how you deal with that, first love, forbidden love, the radicalization of youth, and I could go on and on.

    But it is executed so *badly*. The show has all the subtlety of an anvil-shaped aircraft carrier full of neon-pink anvils being dropped from low earth orbit.

    But, damn, those themes were strong enough to keep me coming back.

  2. carriev Says:

    But I think those anvils are on purpose! I think they’re going for the after-school special, 90210, cheese-tastic aesthetic. I think they’re pointing out that all our favorite things from the 80’s had that aesthetic and it’s not that our nostalgia is misplaced, but we need to see these things for what they really are.

  3. Sean Eric Fagan Says:

    Interesting thought! Clearly, I hadn’t tried looking at it from that way — but that perspective also ties into that *ridiculous* finale, doesn’t it?


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