Cobra Kai spoiler-free review: Karate Kid Sequel is a peak TV surprise

Cobra Kai is a lot of fun but is it enough to help YouTube Red stand out? Here's our US chums' spoiler-free review...

In the second episode of YouTube Red’s Cobra Kai, a sequel series to The Karate Kid, a brief exchange between the original film’s villain-turned-sensei Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his new student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) becomes a perfect microcosm for the entire show. After the kid answers a phone call from his mother, Johnny advises him to change his ring tone to “Guns N’ Roses or something.” When the younger Miguel predictably asks what he’s talking about, the aged teacher quips, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

Those who weren’t alive during the 80s or 90s probably won’t know who Axl Rose or Slash are without Googling them. Similarly, most YouTube Red subscribers (and younger, everyday visitors to the website) probably won’t understand who Johnny is. Nor will they appreciate his complex relationship with Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), the titular hero of the 1984 classic who seems at first more like an antagonist in this iteration. In other words, many YouTube users who come across Cobra Kai in advertisements preceding other videos, or suggested videos after viewing others, shouldn’t even know what it is. Yet here we are.

To be quite frank, a show like this shouldn’t even work. The very concept feels more like a joke than anything else. (And according to How I Met Your Mother, it is.) Over three decades have passed since its inspiration became a cultural phenomenon, and despite several sequels, a reboot and a remake, that is quite a lot of time for something like a new television series to contend with. Though as of the Sunday after the show’s debut, the first episode boasts over 15 million views. What’s more, both it and the second entry have remained atop YouTube’s trending list. The series actually works pretty well, for the most part, and people generally seem to like it.

The story initially sticks to Johnny, whose sorry life following his peak high schools years revolves around rampant alcoholism, a dead-end job as a handyman and an unrepentant inability to let go of the past. He is mildly racist, misogynistic and almost entirely devoid of any redeeming qualities, and the universe doesn’t seem to mind dealing him one bad hand after another. This includes a sudden (and unwanted) reconnection with Daniel, whose daughter and her friends plow into Johnny’s rusty Pontiac Firebird and flee the scene. The would-be hot rod ends up at one of Daniel’s auto dealerships, where the pair meets for the first time in years.

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Considering the critical and ratings successes of recent revivals like Roseanne and Will & Grace, however, perhaps that Cobra Kai works against all odds shouldn’t be too surprising. Current audiences have been craving such nostalgia-driven programming for quite some time, and the powers that be have seemingly cracked the formula for providing viewers with satisfaction. (The same can even be said for Fuller House, Netflix’s revival of Full House, which critics have panned but subscribers seem to adore enough to earn it repeated renewals.)

Said powers in this case are creators Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), and Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar), who somehow managed to make Cobra Kai a reality. One of the big reasons for this is that the trio designed the first few episodes to be as instructive as they are entertaining. This is especially true of the premiere, which relies heavily on footage from, and callbacks to, the original film. The second episode, which jumps between Johnny’s somewhat conventional redemption arc and Daniel’s personal and professional struggles, uses these significantly less. So it goes for the remaining eight episodes, though plenty of Easter eggs abound for the more hardcore The Karate Kid fans the show tries to attract.

Which begs the question, who is Cobra Kai for? The obvious answer is Generation X, which grew up with the likes of “wax on, wax off” and “get a body bag.” Unless Millennials, YouTube Red’s primary demo, caught the original elsewhere or at saw the 2010 remake starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, they probably know as much about Johnny and Daniel as they do Guns N’ Roses. They just don’t seem like the show’s target audience, which makes sense as YouTube Red initially began as a music streaming service. Since then, the company has struggled to become a bona fide Netflix rival. They announced 1.5 million subscribers in 2016, along with another one million who were trying it out, though YouTube has since issued no new numbers.

But maybe Cobra Kai is part of the streamer’s new strategy going forward, especially after cancelling popular vlogger PewDiePie’s flagship series after he made several controversial posts in 2017. YouTube Red initially banked on similar Internet celebrities and their ideas for original comedy, drama and reality programming, hoping their massive followings would flock to the new subscription service. However, more recent additions and forthcoming projects include a science-fiction series starring Harry Potter’s Tom Felton, filmmaker Doug Liman’s new showand a film co-starring Susan Sarandon.

In other words, it appears as if YouTube Red has partially abandoned its original strategy for one more akin to what Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have done before it. And judging by the critical (and apparent commercial) success demonstrated so far by Johnny and Daniel’s return to the dojo after decades away from it, it sounds like Cobra Kai just might help the streamer finally sweep the leg.