A series for the weekend: ‘Cobra Kai’ and the charm of simplicity

Cobra Kai had it all to add to the list of stumbles sponsored by the lure of nostalgia. It premiered in 2018 on YouTube Premium and is the undoubted daughter of peak tv, that television era, which continues to the present day, in which even PlayStation and Facebook launched (without success) to produce fiction and where any hook is a good reason to develop a story. The title with which YouTube tried (without success) to reach the general public with its series was a continuation, 34 years later, of the Karate Kid with two of its leading actors. Unsurprisingly, with the exception of a few critics, who applauded the creation, virtually no one paid attention to the series … until Netflix arrived. Its first two seasons, already seen on YouTube (or rather, hardly seen), became an almost instantaneous phenomenon on Netflix. The third installment, which had been produced for YouTube before Google decided to abandon its short-lived commitment to fiction, premiered on Netflix on the first day of 2021 and a fourth installment has already been ordered in which it will be possible to check whether the foreseeable increase budget begins to show on the screen.

Cobra Kai is a modest production, but very smart. He has managed to take advantage of the ingredients he inherited from the original story and adapt them to the current audience to move with balance between Generation X who saw the film at the time and Generation Z of the new viewers and the young cast of the series. While the original story started with the confrontation between Danny LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), trained by the picturesque Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita, « wax, polish wax »), and the high school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), with the epic victory of the first in a karate tournament with the famous kick of the crane, the focus of the series and the sympathies of the spectator change.

Johnny is now a fifty-year-old who has spent his whole life in low hours and who still carries the consequences of that defeat and the teachings of a senséi (John Kreese, a character who also returns in the series) who trained his students in the absence of compassion. Johnny will try to find redemption by teaching karate to his young neighbor Miguel and another handful of losers. Meanwhile, his son and a few other boys will follow the teachings of Danny LaRusso – a successful businessman with a peaceful family life – in Miyagi-Do Karate with a very different fighting philosophy.

The combination of adolescent dramedia, nostalgic gaze (there is practically no chapter in which images from the original trilogy are not interspersed), martial arts and comedy works very well, taking advantage of William Zabka’s comic vis and that finished point, naive, very well, politically incorrect and endearing that gives Johnny. Of course, not everything is perfect, and the series flows better the more it focuses on karate, comedy and the tug of war between LaRusso and Lawrence, and worse the more dramatic and deep things get. The third season, which is growing in crescendo, is about to become a ball when she forgets one of her best virtues, not taking herself too seriously. Fortunately, he manages not to lose his soul and not forget the love that those responsible for the series, Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, have for the characters. Chapters with an extension of around half an hour also help to lighten when they are at risk of overdoing it.

But above all, Cobra Kai engages the charm of simplicity and honesty. You know what it is, you know its limitations as well as its strengths, and make the most of them without the need for big fireworks. Because there was a time when everything was easier. Wax and polish wax. The rest comes alone.

All premiere and return dates, in the Fifth Season series calendar

More series recommendations and all the television news, in the EL PAÍS Television newsletter. Subscribe for free.