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Televsion Review: "Cobrai Kai" Wins Top Honors Without Resorting To Fighting Dirty

Reviewed by Patrick Gibbs

Out of Four

1984's The Karate Kid is one of those movies that you either look back on with reverence or find yourself thinking that it can't have been as good as you remember. The blend of Rocky and John Hughes meeting the chop socky craze should feel pandering, and it should certainly feel dated and hokey after all these years. But (aside from Pat Morita's jump kicks being less than spectacular) it holds up extremely well, thanks to earnest performances and and a heart so big it is in danger of exploding at any moment.

Growing up poor and frequently bullied, it was impossible not to love the film. I wanted to be Daniel LaRusso, and all of us wanted a friend like Mr Myagi. The second film (the only of the trilogy that I actually saw in a theater) is a lot less relatable, but it's a grand time nonetheless. The third film is . . . not so grand. Put it together with the spinoff, The Next Karate Kid, and you get a feel for what it would be like to follow The Godfather, Part III and Batman & Robin were part of the same franchise. But my reverence for the original still prevented me from even giving the 2010 reboot the benefit of a single viewing.

Between a funny send up on How I Met Your Mother and a tongue in cheek YouTube that portrays young Mr. LaRusso as a sociopath and bully Johnny Lawrence as an innocent victim, there has been a counter culture revisionist view that's been steadily growing. When YouTubeRed's TV series Cobra Kai was announced, some fans (including myself) were a bit worried. William Zabka was returning as Johnny to star in the show, and even though Ralph Macchio was also back as Daniel, it was clear that this was approaching the material from a different view, seemingly with Johnny as the protagonist. What was going on here?

The answer to that question is that one of the smartest, slickest and most unflinchingly insightful sequels of all time was coming at at us, and for anyone who binged on it this past week, it was a thrilling and often emotional breath of fresh air. Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heal (whose previous credits include Hot Tub Time Machine and the Harold and Kumar films) have given The Karate Kid a bit of the Rocky Balboa/Creed treatment, which was an pretty good idea in its own right, but they've taken things a step further on two levels: 1. They've chosen to build it around the antagonist from the first film, fleshing him out as a three dimensional character, 2. They have given themselves five hours to do instead of two.

Cobrai Kai picks up 34 years after the original, and we are reintroduced to Johnny Lawrence as a divorced, broken down drunk who is estranged from his son and barely eaks out a living. When Johnny's one prized possession, his car, is severely damaged in a hit and run accident, the tow company takes it to the very last place he wants to go: LaRusso Auto Group, the company owned by his wealthy former rival, who has become something of a local celebrity. Feeling like a loser at life, Johnny turns to the bottle, but when a teen aged boy named Miguel (Xolo MaridueƱa) gets attacked by a group of bullies outside the very same convenience store where Johnny has come to buy booze, the former All Valley Champion steps in and kicks the stuffing out of the punks. Naturally, Miguel is grateful, and wants to learn the ways of karate from this mysterious stranger. Reluctant at first, Johnny decides to return to the one thing he was ever great at, and to not only teach Miguel karate, but to school him in the ways of his old school, the Cobra Kai, opening a new dojo.

There are a lot of elements that come together to make this a terrific show, but most of all is the combination of loving nostalgia and brutal gut punch that Hurwtiz, Schlossberg and Heal deliver by using the "Remember the '80's? craze as a starkly honest vehicle for exploring the disappointments and regrets that come with middle age, and showing that successful or not, we all have them. Thematically, this is Rocky by way of Arrested Development (though nowhere near as broad as the latter.). The musical score, which combines a steady stream of '80's teen pop with  plenty of nods to Bill Conti's original film score, put us right there in the deep inner battles both Johnny and Daniel are facing and not only identifying with both, but loving (and wanting to kick) both of them.

The hole that Miyagi's absence leaves in Daniel's life is pitch perfect portrayal of the loneliness and confusion that comes with losing one's parents (as someone who has experienced this, the touching episode that is dedicated to Morita was both devastating and cathartic for me.). It also cleverly updates the theme of teen bullying to the cyber age.

The show is lovingly and reverentially true to the source material while daring to take it in bold new directions that never would have been dreamed of before, and the desire to binge this one is a lot more than just the "I have to see what happens next" thrill of Stranger Things. If you grew up with these characters, you will absolutely finding yourself inside the television standing right next to them, and you're not just watching to find out what happens to them: you're watching to find out what's going to happen to you.

Cobra Kai is a masterpiece that far far surpasses the other resurrection reboots we're getting bombarded with, and Zabka deserves an Emmy nomination for his work. Macchio does an excellent job recapturing everything we love about Daniel while daring to show us that he's got issues of his own, and deserves a standing ovation for stepping back and letting Johnny arguably be the lead character this time around. And the show's creators deserve an Emmy just for glorious way the show manages to address the spiritual kinship between Miyagi and Master Yoda in a way that is blatant and subtle at the same time.

I could wax on (and off) for many more paragraphs about how much I loved this show, but the best thing to do is just watch it. Now.

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