Nostalgia Done Right: Cobra Kai

I think I first realised that we were about to be swamped by a wave of 1980s nostalgia around 2005 when some very old school sounding music was used in a trailer for some show or other on ITV2. I forget which show but I’ll never forget the music – it was Dirty Harry by Gorillaz and back then, when the charts were being over-run by the likes of Westlife, James Blunt, Arctic Monkeys, McFly and Kanye West, it sounded so fresh and different, while harking back to early 80s electro superstars like Grandmaster Flash or Herbie Hancock.

Back To The 80s

Little was I to know that this wave of nostalgia for the 1980s would still be washing over us 14 years later. Normally each decade has a small period of homage to a prior decade – the Post Punk/New Romantic movement of the late 70s/early 80s used the 1940s as inspiration, later in the 80s you could see there was a major 1950s influence and the 90s looked back to the 1960s. But this penchant for all things 80s just doesn’t seem to want to go away – and in some quarters people are tired of it. As old as it makes me feel, there are now folk who weren’t even born in the 80s who are not only adults but on the cusp of middle age. Do they really want constant hark backs to a time they can’t possibly have any true affection for? A criticism levelled at the recent Star Wars and Star Trek movies is that they tend to rely on nostalgia rather than decent storytelling to hook in the original films’ Generation-X audience.

Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy

So when YouTube announced they were making a new show which would chart the modern-day adventures of the now middle-aged Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), the internet collectively rolled its eyes.

Another remake/reboot/sequel?

Has Hollywood finally run out of ideas?

It won’t be as good

Can’t the original films just be left alone as an enjoyable relic of their time?

All valid concerns and I’ll admit, I thought some of them myself. But being a) fairly open-minded to belated sequels and remakes b) a big fan of the original films and c) a fan of the hilarious “Daniel Was The Bad Guy” theory I was quite excited to hear that the show would focus on Johnny and his struggle to put his ruined life back together by rebuilding his disgraced dojo.

By the end of the first episode, I was hooked. Here was a smart, exciting, funny drama which not only built upon what had gone before but created something entirely new at the same time. Not only did I get to see the old enemies face off against each other once again but the teen drama element lived on through the main character’s children, bringing in a new, younger audience with its hip, modern cast and soundtrack amongst the 1980s callbacks.

So here are some of the areas I picked up on which could have been overdone and ruined, but Cobra Kai got dead right…

Daddy Issues

Cobra Kai is a show about a number of things. On the surface, it’s about Karate, and if that’s how you want to watch it, then you won’t be disappointed but that only scratches the surface. Front and centre is the issue of Father Figures – a theme which, like many of CK’s ideas, is carried over from the original film.

In the 1984 film, it’s Daniel’s father issues which are focussed on more. Here is a young man, forced by circumstances beyond his control (the divorce of his parents), to start a new life at the opposite end of the country, leaving his friends, his girlfriend, everything he knows, including his father, behind. In his new Reseda home, Daniel sees himself as the Man Of The House and it’s his job to look after his mother – an attitude he believes is chivalrous but which gets him into a lot of trouble quite early on.

Enter Mr Miyagi, his apartment block’s eccentric repairman. The two begin a journey of healing each other’s wounded psyche. Miyagi becomes the father that Daniel so desperately needs, teaching him not only strength and confidence but also gentler traits like patience and humility, while Daniel fills the hole left in Miyagi’s life after his wife and child were killed in WWII.

On the other side of the coin is Johnny, Daniel’s seemingly polar opposite. He is rich, popular and supremely confident – everything Daniel is not. His fighting style reflects the harsh ethos of his dojo. It’s not until we see snippets of his childhood in the first season of Cobra Kai that we begin to understand that Johnny, thanks to a bullying stepfather, is just as fragile and lonely as Daniel. When you watch the first film back with this knowledge pieces of the puzzle finally slot into place. At the Cobra Kai dojo Johnny finds a father and mentor in Kreese – someone who seems to accept him. Of course, we know ultimately all Kreese is interested in is furthering the name of his Karate dojo, using his prize student as nothing more than a tool to be discarded once it is no longer of use.

In the immediate aftermath of the All Valley Karate Tournament, in the opening scene of 1986’s Karate Kid Part II, Kresse reveals his true colours and it is Miyagi who sees in Johnny what he once saw in Daniel, a scared, bullied boy, so steps in once again to defend the defenceless. That is the last we see of Johnny – until episode one of Cobra Kai.

And time has not been kind to him. The betrayal of his father figure has sent ripples through his entire life. We find Johnny still haunted by that day, a deadbeat husband and father himself now, estranged from his family. And then there’s Daniel. He’s got everything Johnny should have had – money, family, a fancy house and even a degree of local fame. But – without Mr Miyagi around anymore it all seems a little hollow, and Daniel has let the lessons his mentor taught him to slip, returning to the attitude of that slightly cocky young man who thinks he knows it all from early on in the first film.

It’s these father figure issues which effortlessly flow into to the secondary stories of Cobra Kai – the pair have themselves become father figures. Johnny to his neighbour’s bullied son Miguel and Daniel to Robby, Johnny’s wayward son, not to mention his own brood. Here we see a major theme of the show’s two seasons (to date) which mirrors that of the movies. Johnny takes on Miguel as his sole student when he catches him being bullied, echoing the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi, while Daniel struggles with disgracing the legacy and memory of Miyagi by trying to be him, rather than his own man, just as Johnny once wished he could be just like Kreese, despite never being able to live up to that dream.

You’re The Best Around

In any teen drama, just like most teenagers’ real lives, music is integral. Just the opening bars of Bananarama’s ‘Cruel Summer’ can take me right back to my own school days but equally, it makes me think of Daniel’s first day at his new school in 1984.

While some films deploy music like a blunt instrument to force the viewer to feel nostalgia, Cobra Kai’s use of a well placed tuned is a far subtler affair. Take the aforementioned ‘Cruel Summer’ – it crops up again in the final episode of Cobra Kai’s second season as the kids are all returning to school after the summer holidays. Similarly, Broken Edge’s ‘No Shelter’ was originally used when Johnny and his gang pursued Daniel from the Halloween ball and appeared during a similar chase scene in Cobra Kai.

However, retro songs aren’t just used as callbacks to the original films – they become a plot point. For example, REO Speedwagon’s ‘Take It On The Run’ comes on the radio when Daniel has been ordered by his wife to try to make friends with Johnny. It’s a fun scene in which the pair actually begin to realise, through a common love of the same band, that they’re maybe not quite as different as they’d like to admit.

Johnny’s love of soft rock leads to a couple of hilarious scenes in season 2 – one a humorous exchange with ‘mature’ karate student Stingray about the lure of the genre and the other, a fantasy dream sequence set to Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’.

Returning Characters

Another complaint against some remakes, sequels and reboots is the insistence on bringing an old character back for no other reason than to make the viewer go “Oh! It’s him/her! I remember them!”. Star Trek Into Darkness is a particularly notable perpetrator of this, with the inclusion of Carol Marcus and [spoilers] John Harrison turning out to be Khan [/End Spoilers].

Aside from the two leads, Cobra Kai brings back a handful of characters from the films too. Randy Heller returns to the role of Daniel’s mother and is used sparingly but effectively. Johnny meets up with fellow Cobra Kais, Bobby (Ron Thomas), Tommy (Rob Garrison) and Jimmy (Tony O’Dell) in a particularly touching episode which reveals Johnny’s continued love of biking but in which he is also reminded that things do indeed change and he can’t hang onto the past if he wants to move forward. Sadly, due to scheduling issues, Chad McQueen was unable to complete the quintet – but it’s perhaps quite fitting that they got around that issue by informing us that the psychopathic Dutch is currently serving time!

Of course, the big talking point of season 2 (and the closing scene of season 1) was another quite shocking return – which, in the interests of not spoiling the surprise, I won’t reveal here, but I will say, had devastating results for both Johnny and Daniel and the shockwaves of that reunion will certainly be the driving force as the show moves on into the now commissioned season 3.

Speaking of season 3, if the season 2 closing scene is anything to go by it looks like we might get at least one of the former characters filling their roles again. Perhaps two if the rumour mill is to be believed – let’s just say that the troubles of the first two seasons will look like a walk in the park when “the real pain begins”.

Of course, one character couldn’t return. The lifeblood of the four Karate Kid films was always Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita’s Oscar-nominated turn as Mr Miyagi. Morita sadly passed away in 2005, and his absence is keenly felt. But, as with the music and the father figure themes, this becomes a driving force for Daniel, who so desperately wants to live up to Miyagi’s teaching – so much so that it blinds him to the problems around him, like his struggling business or troubled daughter. It’s a good thing they did not decide to recast as this would have been discourteous to both the memory of the character and Morita himself. There’s a lovely scene in season 2 where Daniel mistakes someone on the beach for Miyagi. Despite being long dead in the show and real life, Miyagi is still very much at the heart of Cobra Kai.

I’m sure there’s also a lot more which I have missed out here (feel free to discuss in the comments below – spoiler-free if possible please) but hopefully, I’ve gone a little way to persuading the lovers of the original films but naysayers of new series to give Cobra Kai a shot.

Now get on with waxing my car, you lazy so-and-so…

Cobra Kai, once on YouTube Premium has now moved to Netflix. Seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch now and Season 3 will be available from January 8th 2021. Season 4 begins production soon.

Read more Nostalgia Done Right with Paul’s look at time-bending crime drama Ashes To Ashes.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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