If the Broadway musical “Wicked” has taught us anything, it’s that even villains have sympathetic backstories.
This is certainly the case with the new YouTube Red dramedy “Cobra Kai.” A thoughtfully modern “Karate Kid” sequel, the streaming series — which premieres Wednesday — catches up with blond bad boy Johnny (William Zabka) and his good-guy nemesis Daniel (Ralph Macchio), 34 years after their fateful fight on the mat.
As viewers will quickly discover, life hasn’t been kind to Johnny since his loss. He’s a handyman with a drinking problem and an estranged teenage son named Robby (Tanner Buchanan, “Designated Survivor”), whom he barely knows. His apartment is a dump, his car is beat up and he’s so downtrodden, some folks think he’s homeless.
Daniel, by contrast, has an idyllic life anchored by his lovely and loving wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler, “The Big Bang Theory”), charming and popular daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Anthony (Griffin Santopietro), a precocious cherub of a son. Samantha also has karate skills, which she learned from her dad — a refreshing take on gender roles.
As for Johnny, he gets a shot at redemption when he dusts off his old karate moves to defend his nerdy neighbor Miguel (Xolo Mariduena, “Parenthood”) against a trio of bullies. To be sure, Johnny the sexist xenophobe is no Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita). But his heart – this guy has a heart? whaaat? – is in the right place and it doesn’t take much nudging from Miguel to convince Johnny to show him the way of the fist. Johnny is so revved up he decides to open a Cobra Kai dojo of his own.
This show gets a lot of things right from the perfect amount of references and music from the original and the acid-washed 1980s where the movie reigned supreme to the impressive casting and acting. Where “Cobra Kai” really shines is its ability to tap into the complexities of humanity. Throughout all 10 episodes of the debut season, it’s easy to see that Johnny is not all bad and Daniel is not all good.
Sure, he’s a successful car dealership owner who uses his karate championship glory days to hawk luxury sedans. But Daniel is also insecure about the emotional disconnect he has with his children. Creators and writers Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald deftly blur the lines between villainy and heroism when it comes to these two rivals — and there are even times when viewers will find themselves rooting for Johnny instead of Daniel. Kudos goes to Zabka for arguably delivering the most layered performance of his acting career.
That said, “Cobra Kai” relies on coincidence far too often even for a show spawned from the decade of decadence. When the writers aren’t ribbing fans with nostalgic nods and self-deprecation, the show wanders into groan worthy nighttime soap territory. This unfortunately includes a contrived teenage love triangle, a prodigal son subplot, and a cumbersome but predictable path back to the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Tournament that started it all.
Several twists in the finale also point to a likely second season, but even if “Cobra Kai” turns out to be one-and-done, it is an entertaining ride into a forgotten world of underdogs.
Dramedy; 10 episodes reviewed, begins streaming Wednesday May 2. 30 min.