LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
When "The Karate Kid" ended with a crane kick in 1984, it seemed like it was all over.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
But then came sequels, and then came a remake. And now, we have "Cobra Kai," a surprisingly good series that catches up with the film's hero, Daniel, and villain, Johnny, many years later.
HOLMES: Neither one has gotten over high school. They still don't like each other. Only now, they're a couple of middle-aged men who just want to feel, you know, that winning feeling.
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JOE ESPOSITO: (Singing) You're the best around...
THOMPSON: We covered "Cobra Kai" back in 2018 when it premiered on YouTube Red. The show is now available on Netflix, and the third season dropped earlier this month. I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. In this encore episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about "Cobra Kai." So don't go away.
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HOLMES: Welcome back.
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HOLMES: With us this week to talk about "Cobra Kai" is All Things Considered host Audie Cornish.
AUDIE CORNISH: Hey.
HOLMES: And coming to us from the great state of Florida, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS: Hey, I'm loving the classic rock. That is jamming.
HOLMES: Right? And that is true. I will say one of the things about the show is that they do go back to a lot of the soundtrack of "The Karate Kid," which is amazing.
THOMPSON: But they also, because it is a low budget show, they'll refer to Guns N' Roses and then play Ratt.
HOLMES: It's true, but they also do talk about Ratt...
THOMPSON: Like there's a difference?
HOLMES: All right. So my reaction to this, and I said this when I wrote about it, was surprisingly not terrible. What did you think, Stephen?
THOMPSON: I found it instantly bingeable.
THOMPSON: I found myself maybe five, 10 minutes into this show before I thought, you know, even if I weren't covering this for POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, I'm going to watch this whole thing.
THOMPSON: And it's weird. I think it speaks to the kind of enduring power of the original from 1984, which imprinted very, very deeply on my psyche and kind of the way I view bullies in general. I can watch bullies get kicked in the face...
THOMPSON: ...Absolutely infinitely. Like, I could just watch an infinite loop of Johnny Lawrence getting crane kicked in the face forever. And this show kind of gives you the opportunity to watch Johnny Lawrence get re-crane-kicked in the face a bunch of times. But it weirdly goes deeper than that. You see these two guys, Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso, bad guy, good guy, you know, 30-some-odd years later, still reliving high school. And neither one of them is necessarily the hero of the show.
THOMPSON: And I think that's the smartest thing that this show does - is establish that neither one of these guys is consistently in the right.
HOLMES: Well, right. And neither one of them has gotten past that encounter and that idea of that high school battle.
THOMPSON: Yeah, just to give a little bit of a background on where these characters are as of this show, Johnny has spent decades as a - basically - washout. And over the course of the season, he is starting up a new version of Cobra Kai and training new recruits from an area high school. As for Daniel, he is a very successful car salesman and his ad campaigns are all built around the fact - around karate.
THOMPSON: And so it's like, we'll kick the competition. You buy a car. You get a bonsai tree.
THOMPSON: And he's just - he doesn't actually...
HOLMES: It's real corny.
THOMPSON: Yeah. He doesn't, like, realize that...
CORNISH: You mean he didn't embrace the culture the way you thought he would. Is that what you thought the takeaway from "Karate Kid" was in the original?
CORNISH: The cultural embrace of...
DEGGANS: The way Pat Morita delivered it.
HOLMES: And I do want to come back to the balance between these two guys, but I want - Audie, why don't you weigh in? What did you think about the series? You interviewed the writers, right?
CORNISH: I did. I did. And their attitude was, if Kimmy Gibbler can get a billboard, Johnny Lawrence should get a billboard, sort of referring to the return of "Fuller House"...
CORNISH: ...And part of the greater conversation about nostalgia TV and on lots of brands being revived for one reason or another. And this was not the brand I thought needed reviving, you know? I did not lay in bed at night thinking...
THOMPSON: You were not clambering?
CORNISH: ...But you know what I really need to come back to?
CORNISH: But I thought they did it in a clever way for two reasons. One, because they did pull away from the '80s good-evil dichotomy, right? Which was, like, great for that period and those teen movies, but I think we're all used to watching things that are just much more complex now. And two, because they did this very sweet sort of "Rashomon" approach...
CORNISH: ...To the storytelling where you see the entire plot of "Karate Kid" told in flashbacks but from the point of view of the bully.
CORNISH: It was sort of funny, you know, and fun. And even if you hadn't seen the original movie, you could tell that it was playing with the idea of, like, narrative and people's truth and, like, what is the truth? And so, yeah, I'd love to hear what other people thought, but those were my two big at the start, kind of, initial thoughts.
HOLMES: Yeah. What'd you think, Eric?
DEGGANS: Billy Zabka, man, was a revelation to me in this - the guy who plays Johnny Lawrence.
THOMPSON: Did you think you would be speaking that sentence?
DEGGANS: I certainly did not. I mean, that's - to me, that was the coolest thing about...
DEGGANS: ...watching this - was watching him return for to role, give it a humanity, play this guy who's been a loser since he got kicked in the face. And still, you care about that character. And you care about what happens to him. And you're rooting for him in a weird way, even though he's racist, even though he's sexist and even though he's still something of a bully. And that's a triumph to me.
And this whole series, this 10 episodes, felt like a prologue, you know? It felt like we are seeing these two guys kind of unbalanced. And what's going to balance them? And will they ever find their balance? I mean, you know, Danny always seemed on the verge of, kind of, being a jerk. And Mr. Miyagi's teachings was the thing that kind of pulled him back and turned him into a hero. And in these 10 episodes, we see him kind of lose his way and become kind of sleazy and kind of jerky. And we wonder, what's going to pull him back?
CORNISH: Yeah, and they acknowledge that. Like, in later parts of the season, they acknowledge him kind of going to - I mean, Pat Morita has long since passed, but they acknowledge him going to Mr. Miyagi's grave and saying, I don't know what I'm doing anymore and kind of acknowledge - like, they've paid attention enough to the movies and the characters to know that Danny LaRusso was a brat.
CORNISH: He was a loser and a brat...
CORNISH: ...Who got to one-up the bully and get the girl, but that doesn't mean he was like a good kid. And when you lose your mentor and you lose your way, what happens to you?
HOLMES: Right. The easiest way to do this show would have been, you know, Johnny is now coaching one kid. Daniel's now coaching another kid. And it's really about the kids with, kind of, the guys as nostalgia hooks.
HOLMES: But what they decide to do instead is really follow these two middle-aged guys, which, particularly for YouTube Red, is a different - it's so young in its targeting. But I think they made a decision, in this case, to stick with these middle-aged guys. And one of the things that I really found resonant about it is like, so often, villains in shows don't really resonate with me. They're drug lords or...
HOLMES: ...They're - you know, they're the kind of people that you don't run into day to day. But Johnny as a kind of middle-aged, angry, entitled, racist, sexist dude who peaked in high school and is still angry at all the things he feels like were unfair to him?
HOLMES: That feels very present to me. That feels very much like a person that you do run into when you're out driving on the street and all of a sudden somebody is flipping you the bird and yelling at you. It's that kind of guy that you run into day to day. The immediacy of that menace, to me, was more affecting than a lot of bad guys on television.
CORNISH: And let me - we should say the show is not political. I think when I heard your description, I thought, oh, no, what is this, one of these, like, post-Trump kind of depictions of a person?
CORNISH: It doesn't do anything like...
HOLMES: No, it's not...
CORNISH: ...That, but it's the idea of this character coming up against modern etiquette and modern social mores. So like the kid he approaches who he takes on to teach karate, at one point, makes a crack about letting a girl into their dojo, you know? And he's like - says a comment about her. And the kids says, well, I think you're gendering her.
CORNISH: And there's like - there's a laugh that, to me, was respectful of both generations.
CORNISH: And I think that's a question for all of these kind of nostalgia products is like, how are you addressing how these characters occupy today, and are you...
CORNISH: ...Doing it in a relevant way?
HOLMES: It does resonate for me with some of the political moment of the last year or two, but I think that's how it resonated with me. I don't think it's necessarily the intent of the show because you're right, the show does not really get into political stuff at all.
DEGGANS: Yeah, I think, also, too, it seems to me like they're trying to keep the Billy Zabka character, Johnny, relatable.
HOLMES: Oh, sure.
DEGGANS: And to layer all that political stuff on it might, you know, be a barrier to entry. But what I loved about this series is that it does try to explain why he's that way. We get to see his jerky step-dad, played by Ed Asner in a wonderful cameo. And we do get to hear about how he was raised by these two bullies. I guess we shouldn't spoil the very end of it, but we're going to find out more...
DEGGANS: ...About his relationship with his mentor, too. We may even find that those guys thought they were doing the right thing in the worst way, which also helps contemporize the story, I think.
THOMPSON: There's a lot of lessons on this show about teaching and on the power of teaching and how you can learn and be taught the exact right or the exact wrong lessons by somebody who has an enormous amount of power over you. And you see that passed down from generation to generation, where heroes become villains and villains become heroes based, in part, on the teaching. And I think that's really interesting. I
also wanted to say about this show, to put it in the larger context of the TV landscape, separate from the political landscape. I was talking to our producer, Jessica Reedy, last week about this show. And she made a really, I thought, a really smart comparison where she compared it to "Twin Peaks" and "The Return Of Twin Peaks" and how you have this show that is, by definition, extreme fanservice, right? Like, "The Karate Kid" was a movie from 1984. As you said, Audie, no one was clamoring for it to be followed up 34 years later.
They've taken this show, this very old property - and, yes, there have been a lot of sequels and stuff - but they've taken this very old property, and they've made the decades a character in the show, kind of the way the decades are a character in "Twin Peaks." I think that's really interesting. And I think both of those shows - the parts of both of those shows that I found the most profound are about that passage of time.
HOLMES: Yeah. And it's funny to find yourself saying, like, so this is where "Twin Peaks" is different from "Fuller House," but that's exactly what it is - is that rather than just saying, like, let's just age everybody up...
HOLMES: ...And try to make basically the same show with everybody aged up, this has a really different tone than the films did, certainly. And it's much more interested in the complexities of these two guys. And particularly, you know, we've talked a lot about Billy Zabka, and I think that's right. But I also think they've changed, as Audie was talking about. You know, Daniel is - you're sort of brought into that - like, was it ever as simple as him being particularly good? And sometimes...
CORNISH: And people loved Ralph Macchio.
THOMPSON: Yeah (laughter).
CORNISH: You have to remember, like, he was like Tiger Beat-ish.
DEGGANS: He was the man (laughter).
CORNISH: He was the man.
CORNISH: And in part, it was the goodness...
CORNISH: ...The halo, from "Karate Kid."
HOLMES: And when you see some of those moments from the film retold from Johnny's perspective, you think, yeah, he did sort of participate in ratcheting the whole thing up and, kind of, going to war with Johnny and his friends. It is interesting. I really was disappointed that they never do get back to that kid...
THOMPSON: Oh my god.
HOLMES: ...Who I consider the most menacing...
HOLMES: ...Person in the history of film...
HOLMES: ...Is the kid at the end of "Karate Kid" who's standing next to the coach who yells, get him a body bag. Yeah.
HOLMES: And he's the most menacing, creepy - that guy is now in jail, I bet you...
HOLMES: ...Because that guy's just a bad dude.
CORNISH: But they did create another character. And I think this gets to the new generation aspect of it because in this - in "Cobra Kai," essentially, the kids who populate Johnny Lawrence's dojo are actually all the nerds. And you watch them, over the course of the season, become bullies and of themselves. And one of the characters, in particular, becomes the kind of person who would yell, give him a body bag.
THOMPSON: Give him a body - yeah.
CORNISH: And that's not how he started...
CORNISH: ...You know, the 10th grade or whatever.
HOLMES: Well, that's, I think, what Stephen was getting at about teaching. You have to be so careful how you're directing the energy of kids.
THOMPSON: Well, those kids, the kind of outcasts and losers - and Johnny sees them as losers - that you see this mix of them being taught bad lessons and good lessons.
CORNISH: Yeah, stand up for yourself by kicking someone in the face.
THOMPSON: Right, by striking first.
CORNISH: Yeah, exactly.
THOMPSON: You should always strike first.
HOLMES: Well, and you keep having that instinct where you want to go, like, yeah, Johnny's getting it. Johnny's kind of figuring out how to nurture nerds. And then he'll just be like - he'll say some horrible thing where you'll be like, but no, not that. No, don't do that.
THOMPSON: I do think - I want to get back to your point, quickly, about the get-him-a-body-bag kid because "The Karate Kid" and "A Christmas Story" are the two movies I can think of that best understand that the absolute worst character isn't the bully, it's the toady.
HOLMES: That is so true. That is very, very true.
DEGGANS: Can I bring up one more thing?
DEGGANS: "Karate Kid" and Asian culture and diversity - I've always been a little bit troubled by this franchise in that way. It's always felt like a story that would be whitewashed if they didn't have the one Japanese character to kind of redeem it.
CORNISH: If there wasn't for that pesky karate.
DEGGANS: And so now, they've, you know, brought this show into modern times. That one Asian character is gone. And even though they talk about his memory, it's even more whitewashing, this appropriation of Asian culture and ideas and philosophies, without any Asian people in a major role. And that's one of the things that kind of bugged me the most about this remake is I'm sort of thinking, wow, they took a situation that really kind of bugged me a little bit about "The Karate Kid" and made it even worse.
CORNISH: Yeah, and they could have fixed it, right? Like, decades passed.
CORNISH: You know, it's in California.
HOLMES: There were options, for sure.
DEGGANS: Well, you - I don't think they wanted to look like they were replacing Pat Morita.
DEGGANS: And in interviewing those guys, they all were huge fans of the original movie, the three executive producers. And that's one thing they sort of stressed with me is they didn't - they don't want to try and replace them. But that's a big problem, I think, with the series - is that, you know, there are no major characters played by an Asian person, even though there's all this talk of karate and the values behind it.
HOLMES: Yeah, and that's - I think that's a great point.
CORNISH: And to add to that, having such a person cast like any kind of tokenism necessarily like wouldn't necessarily have made it better. But I take your point about the idea that, like, it's a very surface glancing towards any Japanese culture. I mean, literally, it's like - it's as surface as the fact that Danny LaRusso now gives away bonsai trees...
HOLMES: Well, I was...
CORNISH: ...At his car dealership. That's as deep as the show itself goes into cultural ideas.
HOLMES: I was just going to say, I think the closest the show comes to sort of dealing with this in any way is recognizing the kind of cheesy quality to Daniel's use of karate in business.
HOLMES: I think Eric's exactly right. It's not an exception to what Eric is saying, but it's like the show kind of knows the Daniel's use of the bonsai trees and the karate in the course of his business is sort of a perversion of what he was taught. But, sort of, together with what Eric is talking about, it makes it really hard for them to go very deeply into that. And I think that's true.
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HOLMES: We want to know what you think about "Cobra Kai." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about the new film "Locked Down," which is now streaming on HBO Max.
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