When I heard that a Karate Kid sequel series was going to be released through Youtube Red I, like many others, wondered why and how they could resurrect a seemingly dead 80’s franchise and advance the story and characters without it being a total soulless cash grab. When the trailer was released I was still apprehensive, but I also thought “Hey this seems like it could be a halfway decent series”. With each trailer and bit of news that was released I became more and more excited for this series. I hoped that this series would fill the void that the 2010 quasi-reboot Karate Kid starring well known charisma vacuum Jaden Smith failed to. I was not disappointed.
The series picks up 34 years after the original film left off, and follows star pupil turned deadbeat dad Johnny Lawrence as he seeks to find meaning in his life by reopening the Cobra Kai dojo. In doing so, he reignites his rivalry with Daniel Larusso, ostensible protagonist of the original film turned successful car salesman. The series does an excellent job of dropping the audience back into the lives of these two characters, and the directions they are taken in feel like natural progressions from the first film. Johnny in particular stands out, as a man trying his best to get by but whose defeat has left him without direction and balance. The performances by both Zabka and Macchio are superb, and it is evident that they both care deeply for these characters and this franchise. The performances by all of the actors are excellent, and the chemistry between actors both old and new to the franchise feels palpable and real. Daniel’s daughter Samantha is just a girl trying to get out of her father’s karate filled shadow, while Lawrence’s son Robby is just trying to escape his troubled childhood and find a suitable father figure along the way. The sins of Robby’s father still haunt him, prompting him to act out and misbehave. His character indeed seems irredeemable, until he proves that he is truly a good person trying his best. Lawrence’s would be student Miguel also shines as a downtrodden nerd able to find some courage and self worth, sometimes perhaps too much for his own good. One thing this series does particularly well is show us Johnny’s point of view. We get more backstory to Johnny and some justification as to why he was the way he was as a teen. Seeing things from Johnny’s perspective also shows how different events are to different people. Johnny sees Daniel as the villain, because he actively taunted and sought conflict with Johnny even after Johnny left him alone. The series also addresses the contentious point of whether Daniel should have won in the first film due to his illegal facial kick, which I am sure pleases the few people out there who see Daniel as a cheater and a villain.
The series also does not forget its roots, using archive footage from the first film to remind new fans and old alike just how far these characters have come and making the series accessible even if you haven’t seen the original. When making a series such as this, it is easy to fall into the same old conventions, and in some aspects it does, such as the very two dimensional bullies straight out of Hill Valley and enough training montages to make Rocky Balboa jealous. There was a moment near the end of the last episode, where it looks as if Larusso is about to bust out Miyagi’s magic hands to fix Robby’s shoulder. I initially groaned, but when he called for a medic instead I was relieved that he didn’t just attempt to fill the impossibly large hole left by Pat Morita’s Mr Miyagi. The humour is also well executed, with the character of Hawk particularly being fun to watch. Zabka’s Lawrence is also hilarious, with his old world technologically deficient 80’s nature contrasting sharply with the fast paced modern world. Social issues such as sexting and cyberbullying are also tackled by this show rather tacitly, with the main underlying message being to treat negativity with a blaisè attitude, and to generally disregard how harsh other people can be. While this season was rather good, it also set up the next season’s plot threads seemingly all at once. Johnny and his son are still at odds, Sam and Miguel have broken up and she has returned to the world of Karate, while Johnny seems to face his biggest challenge yet in the return of his sadistic former Sensei Krease who has as of yet unknown motives. Overall, I loved this first season and while I am looking forward to a seemingly certain season 2 I am worried that they may have caught lightning in a bottle.
Verdict: I would give this a solid 9/10