I am an ’80s kid. I wore jelly bracelets and bubble skirts with ridiculously tall bangs. I lived for Knight Rider and Fantasy Island. But perhaps nothing else captured my generation more than The Karate Kid. I don’t know what it was about that movie, but we loved it. My sisters and I were obsessed. Once, we were visiting family in Hawaii and saw cast members from Karate Kid II at the mall. It was totally rad.
So you can imagine my excitement at discovering that Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence were making a comeback on YouTube in a ten-episode series called Cobra Kai, continuing the story that started in Reseda, California, over thirty years ago. The series is so much better than even I (a super fan) could have imagined. It might be the best show I’ve seen in the last decade. Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka, was the perfect ’80s bad boy. Blonde, entitled, badass. As a kid, I didn’t think too much about what his story was, although something about the way Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel treated him never sat well with me. Larusso was such a hothead. I remember thinking during the famous hose over the head scene, “Why the heck are you antagonizing a guy with eight friends with black belts?” It was stupidity bordering on psychosis. Did he expect to not take a beating after that?
Cobra Kai gives us what we’ve all been waiting for: an in-depth look at who these characters were then and are now. Johnny Lawrence wasn’t just a badass jerk, but a lonely kid with no father and a desire to be loved and accepted. Instead of finding a gentle soul like Mr. Miyagi to inspire and coach him, Lawrence found John Kreese, a sadistic villain who shaped him into his likeness and then betrayed him.
Johnny Lawrence is not the bad guy in Cobra Kai, but the hero, and we get to see him—with all his flaws and vulnerability—struggling through life. He can’t keep a job, he has a drinking problem, a son who doesn’t speak to him, and is barely scraping by. When he meets another fatherless kid looking for mentorship, Lawrence decides to open Cobra Kai again, this time as sensei.
Johnny is exactly how you might expect him to be if he had spent the last 30 years in a bunker. He has no idea how modern life works, and instead of being unbelievable, it’s hilarious. He can’t work the web, has never heard of Facebook, still wears his red Members Only jacket and drives a Firebird. He also hasn’t caught up with the PC culture at all and it makes for some howlers. I laughed till I cried when he lined up today’s kids in his dojo and gave them the Johnny Lawrence treatment. I won’t spoil it for you — please just watch it.
There’s absolutely nothing in this show that would make today’s snowflake culture happy. In fact, when last year’s karate champion showboats for the crowd at the tournament and demands they take a moment of silence for “intolerance in our time,” making everyone uncomfortable, Johhny leans over to his star pupil and whispers, “Kick that pansy b*tch in the face.” It’s a huge laugh line. I think this may signal the end of the reign of the virtue signalers. If Hollywood writers are sick of politically correct messaging, it’s all over. While Johnny is a walking stereotype of a manly man, you love him for it. The writers clearly are not portraying him as some terrible guy (or Nazi), which is big news for the much-maligned toxic masculinity. The audience will love his masculinity and want more of it, not less.
Johnny knows one thing and that’s that life shows you no mercy and so you’d better be prepared to kick ass. The rivalry between Johnny and Daniel is still at the heart of the story. Daniel is now a successful car salesman (We kick the competition!) who gives a bonsai tree to every customer. It’s hilariously cringe-worthy. His character retains his old flaws of jumping to conclusions and misreading intentions. He is as annoying as he ever was, while still hanging onto that charm that got him the girl. He now has a wife and two kids, none of whom want anything to do with his karate instruction.
In a twist of fate, Daniel takes on Johnny’s estranged son as a student while Johnny trains a kid much like Daniel used to be. Both have vastly different styles that get results and each boy gets something he desperately needs from each mentor. The show is brilliantly written and light-hearted, while also imparting serious wisdom today’s youth need. Specifically: it’s okay to be a man and use your fists to defend yourself; keyboard warriors are cowards; boys need a father; and kids aren’t as delicate as we think they are.
Johnny is obviously a work in progress and his teaching isn’t perfect, which he discovers at the end of season one. Let’s hope the writers don’t intend to make him “woke” because that will kill it. I’m hoping that Daniel and Johnny finally bury the hatchet and work together to make karate great again. My only criticisms of the series are the language and some gratuitous sexual elements. (Is it really necessary that kids are watching twerking online and joking about the girl’s behind? It’s a throwaway scene that didn’t need to be there.) The movies were family friendly, so why can’t the series be also? There are a lot of f-words that are simply unnecessary. I would love to show this to my kids, but sadly I can’t. They should reconsider this for season 2 and make it truly family-friendly entertainment because it has everything else on point.
And in case you were wondering, yes you can join Cobra Kai. Get the t-shirt here.