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Sunday, May 9, 2021

Why YouTube Red’s ‘Cobra Kai’ isn’t just another sequel

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We’re all adults here at The Times, and we know a good laugh when we see one. Just ask people in our audience — there’s a chill in the air, folks, and with good reason. Here are three reasons “Cobra Kai” (which airs Thursdays on YouTube Red) isn’t a reboot (that makes it sound like they took the show and rewrote it with a script and a director).

1. Karate’s an underground subculture. When is the last time you saw an episode of “Game of Thrones”? A lot of folks in rural America can’t name a single branch of the military. Sure, their heroes might be Navy SEALs, but how many likely bought “Harlem Nights,” Robert Townsend’s “social drama” about four black kids who fly out to New York and become part of a criminal syndicate? But they all love karate, which has been around a long time, and it may be the most interesting subculture you’ve never heard of. Sure, YouTube Red isn’t the first place you’d look if you wanted to learn the art, but for those looking for a deep dive, “Cobra Kai” is a major revelation.

2. It’s written by Robert Carlock, the brilliant writer behind “30 Rock.” “Cobra Kai” hasn’t really caught on like SNL’s “Worst Week” sketches because it’s a rare, grown-up comedy with a rare, grown-up writer. Carlock is nobody’s joke; he and Tina Fey, in particular, perfected the frantic, self-aware single-camera style that becomes increasingly transcendent whenever its creator is doing his or her best to deflate that stylistic bulwark, and he knows how to approach the outside world as the way you want it to be seen. He’s committed to his characters on “Cobra Kai,” even if they’re unhinged and destructive and don’t make any sense to anyone in their peer group, and he’s committed to the idea that karate is a grudge-bearing sport and a feud on its own terms.

3. “Cobra Kai” gives us a fresh and hilarious look at Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, two actors who are good enough and still self-aware enough that the whiff of character is evident even in the aching worst moments. What other rivalry is hard-hitting and sexy enough to make us see the failure of their friendship through the prism of its nastiest tradeoff: Self-loathing?

In “Cobra Kai,” two childhood friends are reunited in the late 1990s — by chance, of course — and they come face to face with their adult lives, which have, for the most part, flopped. The old rivals have picked up a new life for themselves. They’re teaching karate together in Huntington Beach, California. As the show opens, Macchio is teaching at Kai’s club while Zabka is starting his own gym. This is a dream team, right? But tragedy and betrayal lead the rivals — as well as unexpected assistance from a wary mom — to realize that the people they saw as their surrogate parents really aren’t. And that may make for two very memorable reunions.

Watching “Cobra Kai” reminds you that sports and moral standing don’t always go hand in hand. In this case, Macchio and Zabka’s paths together are, like almost everything else in the show, guided by their own needs rather than by any sense of the universal. The show is definitely for mature audiences, and it may not touch upon the same themes as its TV-show brethren but there are lots of important lessons to be learned here. And in karate and culture, it turns out, even the sacred can get schlocky and definitely not boring.

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