“Ignorance is bliss.”
Joe Pantoliano’s Cypher utters the line as he contemplates whether or not knowing the steak he’s eating isn’t real matters when compared to the reality of the austere life he’s been living outside the Matrix – in the real world.
Over the last few years, as it’s become increasingly harder for me to enjoy a piece of media without being reminded of the real world, I have come to sympathize more and more with Cypher’s choice. One of the more pernicious side effects of knowing more about a subject is how that knowledge demystifies it, making it somehow less special. And let’s be honest, it’s nearly impossible to study movies this closely – examine the nuts and bolts of how they’re made and analyze the themes, philosophies, and politics that underpin them – without also partially ruining the pure entertainment value of them.
As a kid, I mostly watched movies and TV for entertainment. There wasn’t much to do where I grew up. Reality offered mostly dirt roads, cow-filled pastures, and old people, but the click of a button transported me anywhere in the world – and beyond. As an adult (and mildly obsessive film and TV fan), the medium rarely works that way for me these days.
Unfortunately, there’s no cure for pop culture burnout. There’s no Matrix to be reinserted into to escape the banality of the real world. To forget what the president or some actor or cereal executive said on Twitter five minutes ago. There’s no way to put the glitter back in the bottle and forget how fight scenes are choreographed or that all vehicles and buildings don’t actually explode when they collide with other objects. There’s no way to un-know that most of what passes for scientific explanation in movies is complete bullshit or that most historical biopics and “true stories” are filled with half-truths and lies.
But every now and then, a piece of entertainment comes along that makes me forget, even if only for a half hour, the real world.
For me, right now, that piece of entertainment is Cobra Kai.
Cobra Kai ain’t complex. It’s not sophisticated. The production values aren’t high. And the acting isn’t Oscar-worthy. The plot is ridiculously simplistic and often stretches the bounds of plausibility (nearly every episode). It’s nostalgic, saccharine, and occasionally melodramatic.
And it’s exactly what the entertainment world needs right now.
See, Cobra Kai isn’t great despite all of those qualities; it’s great because of those qualities. The show never really takes itself too seriously, but it’s also not trying to be ironic or simply bank on laughs at the expense of the original films. Cobra Kai is sincere. It’s upbeat. Positive. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and it tells the audience it’s OK, even if only for 30 minutes at a time, to not take ourselves so seriously. That it’s OK to notice, misunderstand, and even laugh at our differences, idiosyncrasies, and foibles. It’s OK to forget that the world’s problems and their solutions aren’t sitcom simple. That not everything needs to be over-analyzed, deconstructed, and nitpicked to death.
If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the series, Cobra Kai takes its name from the dojo that Ralph Macchio’s character Daniel gets on the wrong side of in the 1984 film, The Karate Kid. Simply put: Cobra Kai were the bad guys in the film. And with a title like that, you could be forgiven for assuming that the central conceit of the series is taken from the popular meme that reads Daniel as the bully and the guys from Cobra Kai as the bullied. Fortunately, the show’s creators are more interested in creating something sincere than grasping at the low-hanging fruit of irony and cynicism.
The show, however, does play around with our preconceived notions of the characters from the film. Cobra Kai is told more from the perspective of Johnny (William Zabka) than Daniel – at least in the first season. Johnny has had a rough life, and we meet him just as he’s hitting rock bottom. Daniel, on the other hand, is living the life as a successful businessman, family man, and pillar of the community. Johnny, with no other choices left to him, decides to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo, and when Daniel finds out, undealt with feelings bubble to the surface and an old rivalry is rekindled.
The really smart thing about the show’s premise is that it manages to tell us a different side of this story without undoing the events of the original film, and the characters, when we meet them again, feel like they are exactly where they should be. They are the logical extensions of the characters they played almost 35 years ago.
But Cobra Kai doesn’t simply trade on nostalgia to win viewers. Daniel and Johnny’s story is what propels the show, but, at its heart, Cobra Kai is a teen dramedy, and the writers deftly weave the two leads’ resurrected conflict with that of the show’s younger stars.
Johnny’s first student, Miguel, is not very different from the character of Daniel when we first meet him in The Karate Kid. He’s a nerd, and he’s often the victim of school bullying. Zabka’s Johnny is old school, and when he meets Miguel and begins to train him, he’s still very rough around the edges and not terribly sympathetic to Miguel’s plight. He’s hard on him and takes a very antiquated approach to getting the teen to face his fears, frequently calling him a “pussy” and using various other non-PC terms to break Miguel down so that he can rebuild him into something stronger.
It’s not that Johnny is anti-PC so much as he just seems not to have noticed that the world has moved on from where it was in the 1980s. This often makes for some funny moments, but there’s a message here, too if you’re paying attention. The writers are clearly poking fun at our overly-sensitive culture and saying “It’s OK to loosen up and laugh a little.” But Miguel isn’t the only one learning something in this relationship. Johnny may be toughening Miguel up and preparing him for the real world, but, at the same time, Miguel is teaching Johnny that life doesn’t have to be an endless cycle of the strong preying on the weak and that there’s more to people than just our preconceived notions of them.
And between the schmaltzy life lessons, melodrama, and humor are some very well choreographed, good old-fashioned martial arts fight scenes.
This is especially refreshing, because the show sticks mostly to straight up karate/taekwon do-style fight choreography, never attempting to punch above its weight class or be something that it’s not, which seems rare in this post-UFC internet world. When The Karate Kid came out, oriental martial arts were still exotic and maybe even a little magical. Now, everyone thinks s/he’s an expert on fighting. That may not be literally true, but, at the very least, we are a much more sophisticated audience in 2019 than we were in 1984. It’s much harder to get away with some of the admittedly silly orientalism that was the stock-in-trade of early martial arts films. Cobra Kai wears this heritage like a badge of honor and occasionally pokes fun at it but never in a way that undermines the writers’ obvious love of the material. And we get some fun fight sequences as a result.
It may sound like hyperbole for a web TV series based on a cheesy 80s martial arts film franchise, but like the best myths, Cobra Kai shows the audience a standard to try and live up to and the promise of a world that isn’t – but could be – our reward for trying to be better than we know we actually are. It tells us we have the capacity within us to change, to do good, and that no one (well, maybe not no one, but you get the point) is beyond redemption or at least the chance of redemption.
Cobra Kai is so much better than it has any business being, and I’m just glad, for once, that something exists in the world of pop culture entertainment that can be enjoyed free from the constraints of the real world. It’s just simple, fun entertainment.
You can catch the first two seasons of Cobra Kai on YouTube Premium. The third season is set to hit the streaming platform sometime in 2020.