Flicks With Nicki – Why Cobra Kai?Nicki Salcedo. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Ralph Macchio and I share a birthday. It might not mean much now, but it meant a lot to me when I was 10 years old and had a huge crush on him. Funny how a lifetime later, I stumbled upon a note with my daughter’s celebrity crushes and Ralph Macchio was number one on her list.
“Mom, he was Johnny in the ‘Outsiders,’” she explained.
“Yes. I know him. He was also in ‘The Karate Kid’ and ‘My Cousin Vinny’ and is my birthday twin. I have dibs on him. He’s not even your age.”
In the original “The Karate Kid,” Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) is a New Jersey kid who moves to Southern California. With his dark hair and Italian name, Daniel is an easy target for bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Daniel finds a mentor in Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) who teaches him about life and finding his inner strength through karate. The bad guys are a bunch of rich kids from a twisted karate dojo called Cobra Kai. The movie shows us that a misfit can prevail and that cultures can collide and intertwine without clashing. “The Karate Kid” is an immigrant story. Daniel and Mr. Miyagi represent parts of me. I’d never seen a movie with a blond-haired, blue-eyed villain. Plus, it had karate fights and romance. That was good enough for me in 1984.
I was curious to watch “The Karate Kid” reboot “Cobra Kai.” I wondered what would happen between old rivals Daniel and Johnny.
“Cobra Kai” starts with Johnny’s sad present-day life. He drinks too much, is quick to anger, and is trapped in his 1980’s glory days. Things start to improve when he reluctantly agrees to help the new kid in town Miguel (Xolo Maridueña). A direct nod to the original Daniel, Miguel is tormented by the school’s biggest bully and falls for the bully’s girlfriend Samantha (Mary Mouser). She isn’t just any girl. Her dad is Daniel LaRusso, a well-meaning but insipid car salesman. Before we get too far into the Romeo and Juliet part of this story, we meet a third kid. Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is a petty criminal who gets a job at the LaRusso car dealership to spite his absentee father, Johnny Lawrence.
Over the course of the first three seasons we see the bullied kids become bullies who strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy. Nice kids must navigate lies and truth. Bad kids have to reconcile their choices. We meet Eli/Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), Aisha (Nichole Brown), and Demetri (Gianni Decenzo). There’s ultra-bad girl Tory (Peyton List) and the sweet goodness of Moon (Hannah Kepple).
The teens fight, and the adults struggle with their past. We see the original story through the eyes of Johnny. We want Daniel to be the nice guy Mr. Miyagi trained. But he is flawed. Neither can let go of a 30-year-old grudge.
I understand grudges. This summer, I got a friend request from the person who stole my ruler in the third grade. I spent a few minutes looking through her profile and deemed that she was no longer a horrible monster. Though I still have my doubts, I accepted the friend request. I understand those feelings between Daniel and Johnny. They both need a swift front kick to the gut. Fortunately, each episode involves at least one fight scene where I choose no side and scream “no mercy” at the TV screen.
The setup is contrived, but that’s part of the fun. This is action comedy. The weak parts of the show are the over-the-top characters. Yes, they bring in the evil sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove). We simultaneously hate Tory, but secretly love the actress Peyton List. The storylines almost always revolve around simple misunderstandings between the characters that could be cleared up with a quick conversation. The one Black character on the show is Aisha. They grossly mishandle her storyline. Then I realize that all the characters are being grossly mishandled. I want to throat punch the writers.
It is the most ridiculous show. I hate it. Sometimes it is good. Really good. I also love it.
The good includes Amanda LaRusso (Courtney Henggeler), Daniel’s wife who seems insipid at first, but then evolves into a strong and smart character who tries to keep things rational.
The good is recognizing local faces like Counselor Blatt (Erin Bradley Dangar). I’m pretty sure my husband and I have chaperoned a school field trip with her. Her on screen excitement meeting Daniel LaRusso echoes how I would act standing next to my favorite crush.
The good is seeing favorite places around Atlanta and Decatur like Challenges Games and Comics owned by local Tony Cade. The show used his store for a scene in “Cobra Kai,” and he watched the filming of the larger fight scene inside North DeKalb Mall. When I spoke to Tony, he mentioned the single-camera set-up and complimented the action that we see on screen. “It takes skilled editing,” he said. Tony is a big fan of the show and actors who have visited his store over the years to buy comics and learn to play games.
Why do we love this terrible show? Atlanta actor, writer, and director Karen Ceesay (“The Walking Dead” and “Black Lightning”) suggests, “They found a way to make it current, but maintain the corniness that was the 80’s.” “Cobra Kai” flips the script on who is the underdog and who is the bad guy. The concept of good versus bad is murky. We want to see Daniel be better than a judgmental jerk. We want to see Johnny be better than an irresponsible jerk. We watch because we want them to change. We want them to reconcile. But this is a show switches good and bad in every episode.
The other good part of the show the call backs to the movies. It is immensely satisfying to see appearances by different original characters and guest stars we know from other 80’s TV shows like Ed Asner and Kim Fields.
I love it because it reminds me to be 10 years old again and to see things with fresh eyes.
I love it because of William Zabka and his portrayal of Johnny Lawrence. Johnny is sexist, sullen, and stuck in his ways, but he is also endearing, funny, and resilient. Zabka gets the best lines in the show. “We do not allow weakness in this dojo. So you can leave your asthma and your peanut allergies and all that other made-up bullshit outside.”
Johnny Lawrence is no Ted Lasso. As much as I need goodness, I need someone like Johnny to notice that the so-called “good” people in our communities can also be entitled bullies and liars. In this world, the idea of striking hard and fast isn’t so awful anymore. We still love Daniel, but his co-dependence on Mr. Miyagi exposes a crutch that hinders him. Johnny’s crutch is being too cool to grow or be kind. What we want is a little of Johnny and a little of Daniel. The show teases us with the potential.
The television series started on YouTube Red and has since been acquired by Netflix. Three seasons are now available. It is a terrible show. You will want to give a spinning star kick to every character. But the final scene of season three made it all worth it. I love it. I hope the writers don’t mess up season four. Campy is fine, but I want them to smooth out the story lines because this could be an excellent show. I’ve already pulled out my secret diary from 1984 and moved Ralph Macchio down (just one notch because he still is perfect) and updated the top spot with William Zabka. He is my favorite. You’re never too old for a new celebrity crush. Grade B+
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom.
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