‘Cobra Kai’ Bosses Discuss Returning to ‘The Karate Kid’ Universe

It has been more than three decades since underdog Daniel Russo (Ralph Macchio) defeated bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in a karate match that gave “The Karate Kid” “the ultimate happy ending.” But when “Cobra Kai,” the YouTube Red series that expands the world debuts May 2, not that much will have changed for the characters.

“It was important to us that what we’re making was a true continuation of those movies,” executive producer Jon Hurwitz tells Variety. “It becomes more of a comedy in certain ways, and the tone may have a certain edge to it because of the cobra kai angle, but the themes from the original movie you will feel throughout the series in a major, major way.”

Although both original characters are grown, they still very much match up to the images with which “The Karate Kid” last left audiences. Daniel is the more successful one — he is a businessman, a husband, and a father — while Johnny is still rough around the edges, alone, and struggling to make ends meet.

“With Daniel, it seems at the beginning of the show that he has a happy life, but when you have that little element of you that feels like you lost a little bit of yourself, you reflect on that and can still be triggered by things in your past,” executive producer Hayden Schlossberg says.

“On Johnny’s side, we’ve always liked the idea and felt it was very relatable to think about that guy from your high school who was a little bit of a bully and what happens to that guy? We saw a lot of potential for Johnny to be in a bad place in life and have room to grow,” executive producer Josh Heald adds.

As the 10-episode series unfolds, both Daniel and Johnny will be “protagonists and antagonists to each other,” says Hurwitz.

“There’s a little bit of regret on Johnny’s side and a little bit of regret on Daniel’s side about what happened,” Heald notes. “It’s a ‘grass is always greener’ story.”

The producing trio knew the importance of introducing a next generation so that the series could still include the sensei-student dynamic, this time between Johnny and a teenager named Miguel (Xolo Mariduena).

“We wanted to evoke the feelings that we had when we watched ‘Karate Kid’ for the first time, and a lot of those are from the kids’ points of view,” Schlossberg says.

Producers admit that at first glance in the premiere episode, Johnny is still “gruff” and “aggressive” and reluctant to return to karate, let alone teach it to a kid he doesn’t really know.

“The fun is seeing him rediscover karate for perhaps the wrong reasons and start to teach this somewhat warped kind of karate to someone who is a sponge and looking for something to grasp onto as a foothold,” Hurwitz says.

Schlossberg also notes more of the fun comes from returning to classic moments from the movie through the new lens. Whereas Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) was an old man who “beat the s— out of a bunch of bullies and saved Daniel and we all loved him and feared him because of it,” when Johnny attempts a similar action in “Cobra Kai,” the result is not quite the same.

“It’s funny to see the side of that where he gets caught by police,” Schlossberg says. “There’s a discussion around safe spaces. A teacher can’t really do anything harmful to you — but Johnny is challenging those expectations and those norms. We really explore the peaks and valleys of what it is to use cobra kai in modern day.”

Schlossberg also adds that “redemption” is a big part of Johnny’s arc, and how he will find his way through that journey is with Miguel and his new dojo.

Including characters such as Miguel also allow “Cobra Kai” to tap into the modern teenager’s experience, which not only includes new kinds of bullying since the movie (cyber bullying, for example), but also reflects the more diverse student population in high schools today.

“In 1984 there was something interesting and exotic about an Italian kid from Jersey, but we had to update it a bit,” Hurwitz says.

The key for the producers was finding a group of young actors — most actually under the age of 18 — to reflect the youth and diversity of a Los Angeles area high school, but “still capturing those same classic themes that everyone can relate to when they watch any high school drama,” Schlossberg says.

Being on a platform where a younger demographic consumes content is a bonus for producers, but they say they have not done anything differently with the show because of where it will live.

“YouTube was cool with whatever we wanted to do, and they said we could make certain episodes TV-MA, but we went out of our way to make every episode TV-14,” says Hurwitz. “We feel like it has a much harder edge than the original ‘Karate Kid’ movies, and there may be certain things that certain parents may find inappropriate for 10-year-olds, certainly, but we’re hoping it’s the kind of show that today’s teenagers will enjoy just as much as the adults who remember the original.”

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