×

TV Review: ‘Cobra Kai’ on YouTube Red

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.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Cobra Kai' on YouTube Red

CREW: Executive producers, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, Josh Heald, James Lassiter and Caleeb Pinkett. Co-executive producers Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.

Crew: CAST: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Xolo Mariduena, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Courtney Henggeler, Nichole Brown, Griffin Santopietro, Jacob Bertrand, Bret Ernst and Randee Heller.

More TV

  • The First -- "The Choice" -

    Sean Penn Drama 'The First' Was 'Unrelatable' to British Audiences, Channel 4 Exec Says

    Channel 4’s director of programs Ian Katz says the British broadcaster has learned a good lesson from the failure last year of its big-budget Hulu co-production “The First” to resonate with U.K. audiences. Speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Katz described the Sean Penn-starring drama about a mission to Mars as a “really classy piece [...]

  • Hugh Laurie

    Hugh Laurie to Star in New BBC Thriller 'Roadkill' by David Hare

    Hugh Laurie, the Golden Globe-winning star of “House” and “The Night Manager,” will play a beleaguered politician in a new four-part thriller for the BBC, “Roadkill,” from acclaimed playwright and screenwriter David Hare. The series is being produced by The Forge (“Collateral”). Laurie stars as Peter Laurence, a charismatic Conservative Party government minister who remains [...]

  • Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth WarrenSecond 2020

    ABC News Sets Moderators, Rules for Third Democratic Debate

    ABC News has announced the moderators for the third Democratic debate, as well as the qualification rules. The debate will be held on Thursday, Sept. 12, and will spill over to Friday, Sept. 13 if more than 10 candidates qualify. The moderating team will consist of chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, “World News Tonight” anchor and [...]

  • James Corden Paul McCartney Carpool Karaoke

    James Corden Got a Little Help From Paul McCartney on His Drive to the Emmys

    Saying “Baby, I could drive your car” has proven to be a very good strategy for James Corden — never more so than when he put Paul McCartney into the highly sought passenger seat. The primetime special “Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney, Live From Liverpool” is a contender in five Emmy categories this year, [...]

  • Starz Logo

    Starz Orders Horror Comedy Pilot 'Shining Vale'

    Starz has put out a pilot order for “Shining Vale,” a horror comedy which hails from “Divorce” creator Sharon Horgan and “Trial & Error” co-creator Jeff Astrof. The prospective series is about a dysfunctional family that moves from the city to a small town into a house in which terrible atrocities have taken place. But no one [...]

  • Bethenny Frankel at the showtime Emmy

    Bethenny Frankel to Exit 'Real Housewives of New York' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bethenny Frankel is stepping away from the “Real Housewives” franchise. Variety has learned exclusively that Frankel is poised to exit Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York” ahead of its upcoming twelfth season. Frankel first joined the acclaimed reality series back when it premiered back in 2008 before exiting the series in 2010 during the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content