An aging Johnny Lawrence is haunted by something that happened in high school, even though he really should have moved on by now.
Cobra Kai is not something that is watched so much as it is experienced.
For Doctor Who fans, I’ll say it evokes Clara’s season 7 epiphany: “The souffle isn’t a souffle. The souffle is the recipe.” Cobra Kai isn’t Cobra Kai. Cobra Kai is everything in our real world that brought this show into existence — Ralph Maccio’s ComicCon circuit post-Karate Kid career, the Billy Zabka brief arc as himself on How I Met Your Mother, the wave of 80’s nostalgia streaming shows. All of that comes together to make a formulaic, not particularly well-acted YouTube streaming television show an unequivocal delight. I giggled through the entire thing, smiling like your Jewish writer who finally got to experience Christmas morning for the first time. Did I enjoy it ironically? Sure. Who knows? Who cares? I watched Cobra Kai and I had the time of my goddam life.
We meet Johnny Lawrence 34 years after the fateful crane kick that ruined his life, when the weedy New Jersey dweeb Danny LaRusso beat him in the All Valley Karate Tournament, stealing his girl, his reputation, and his confidence in a single illegal blow to the head. Now, Lawrence is a middle-aged loser who shares his bed with a bag of chips and keeps a bottle of beer on his bedside table. He works as a handyman, haunted by karate-themed billboards and television ads for LaRusso’s successful car dealership.
And then a new kid moves into his apartment complex. Lawrence is rude and Gran Torino-level racist to Miguel, but still, we all know where this is going: weedy brunette kid? Disgruntled handyman who lives in his apartment complex? You don’t need to re-watch Karate Kid to know what comes next.
And it does: While Lawrence eats a sad mini-mart dinner in a parking lot, Miguel gets jumped by a group of high school bullies (who no doubt would have been in Cobra Kai uniforms a few decades earlier.) When one of them taunts him, Lawrence steps in with his karate powers and defeats the teens. With all of the superhero origin stories streaming, it’s impossible not to snicker a bit at the earnestness of an out-of-shape middle-aged man karate chopping some teenagers in his hero moment. The effect, as with the entire show, is impossible not to laugh at — or, one hopes, with.
And though Miguel begs Lawrence to teach him his karate moves, Lawrence refuses — at least until he hits rock bottom, when a group of texting teenage girls hit his precious vintage car and it gets towed… to LaRusso’s shop. Although he tries to avoid his former high school nemesis, LaRusso spots him and recounts their final match to the delight of his coworkers. And then Lawrence sees LaRusso’s daughter: the girl who hit his car.
Humiliated and impotent, he uses his rage to unleash the inner cobra. He tells Miguel he’ll teach him, and uses the money his stepfather sent along to open a new Cobra Kai gym. “I’m not just going to teach you how to conquer your fears. I’m going to teach you how to awaken the snake within you,” Lawrence says with full conviction and earnestness.
It’s still not entirely clear whether we should be rooting for Johnny Lawrence (who’s still rude, racist, using terms like “pansy-ass,” who calls a customer a “b—-,” and who doesn’t seem particularly sorry for the ways he homicidally bullied LaRusso back in the day) and yet I am entranced.
Some moments feel depressing, like when the aged Zabka ties on his headband, and I wish the show seemed more in on the joke, more meta, and self-referential. As it is, Cobra Kai is a (usually unintentionally) hilarious piece of performance art and I will watch every single episode.