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REVIEW | YouTube Red's COBRA KAI

Streaming, ReviewSteve Molk

Thirty-four years. That's how long Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) has been off-course. Off-kilter. A man lost at sea. All because he lost the All-Valley Championship to Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) and his Sensei publicly punished and shamed him for his failure.

Thirty-four years.

Nothing has gone right. He's long-divorced his alcoholic wife and barely knows where his son is, let alone have a relationship with him; he's punching through menial jobs because that's all he can hold down; and it all hangs off that one night of failure. He's just after a shot at redemption as the hits keep piling up.

It's only after he saves Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) - a loser kid from his apartment complex - from a beating at the hand of the high school bullies (and only then because they touched his car) that he realises his chance to turn everything around is where it's always been: COBRA KAI Karate.

Deeply rooted in the original Karate Kid universe COBRA KAI continues all these years later to see Lawrence trying to get his life back on track while it continues to be inextricably entwined with that of Daniel Larusso, who leveraged his fame to become a successful automotive dealer in the Valley. Larusso is a pillar of the community he's lived in his entire life.

Larusso however has become complacent. His kids are spoiled and he's still living large on his victory all those years ago ("Every car sold comes with its own bonsai tree"). Business is booming, but his family life isn't so great. There's something missing for him too.

To have Zabka and Macchio reprise their roles so successfully speaks to the might of this YouTube Red original series - it could have been waved away as a cheap money grab with cameos from the stars and letting the new cast carry the tradition. The strength of COBRA KAI is their inclusion and excellent performances - continuing the movie rivalry now into an original TV series.

The brilliantly executed nods to No More Kings' original song Sweep The Leg and J Matthew Turner's video The Karate Kid: Daniel Is The Real Bully build this series in a way others wish they could access pop culture. Both should be rewarded for their indirect influence in getting this series made.

No question this hits the nostalgia bone hard with many flashbacks and use of original film footage to remind us where this series is centered, but it doesn't live in the past (like Johnny with his beat-up Pontiac Firebird and classic 80's soundtrack). The ghost of Pat Norita (The Karate Kid's Mr Miyagi) looms large across the series and helps shape the second half of the season.

How completely the series anchors itself in the original film/universe is why children of the 80's will love it and want to sit down at watch it with their kids, which is simple because COBRA KAI is sharp, pacey and easy to watch with the entire family - and at 10x27 minute episodes in the first series it races along. It almost wades into after-school special territory, but somehow successfully and delicately balances between watered-down Growing Pains-esque "morality episode" and all-out karate warfare, like a student balancing on a tree stump practicing karte.

Maridueña is perfect as the nerdy kid living with his Mom & Grandma in the dodgy Reseda apartment who finds a mentor and Sensei in Lawrence. Sam Larusso (Mary Mouser) well cast as the spoiled little rich girl trying to fit in, and Aisha (Nichole Brown), Eli (Jacob Bertrand), Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and the rest of the cast add depth, colour and multiple connection points to what reveals itself to be way more than the one-note sequel series it could have been.

COBRA KAI is fun, engaging and is marvellously, surprisingly great. There were many times I found myself cheering on action, or aghast at character's decisions, or feeling like I was about to explode as the plot went in the perfect direction. It's honestly so, so good to watch and just to tease YouTube Red have made available E01 and E02 to watch free.

You'll smash through this first season and be 1-2 punching in impatience for the second. COBRA KAI is worth the price of a YouTube Red subscription alone.

 

COBRA KAI season one (10x27min episodes) - premieres 5pm May 3, exclusively on YouTube Red.