Originally posted Tuesday, April 23, 2019 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
YouTube has cut back on producing more scripted originals. But last year, it dropkicked a surprise hit in “Cobra Kai,” a continuation of 1980s-era “The Karate Kid” stories.
The producers, huge fans of the original films, made it work, honoring the source material while infusing humor and depth into high school enemies Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (seemingly ageless Ralph Macchio) without crossing into parody or satire. Three decades later, Johnny’s road back to karate was filled with pathos while Daniel’s triggering reactions to Johnny’s presence in his life again were amusing.
“It was exciting,” Macchio said in an interview. “If I knew how to make a hit, I’d do more of them. In this case, everything went right. The producers had the vision.” He said they were able to satisfy the nostalgia buffs while also bringing in younger fans.
The ten-episode season two - which returns in full glory at midnight on April 24, 2019 - brings more of the same. But with former evil mentor John Kreese (Martin Kove) back in the picture, Johnny’s efforts to be a better human being are going to be seriously tested.
“He is definitely trying everything in his power not to be Kreese or his dad,” said Zabka at the Fun Spot in Fayetteville last October during a break in shooting on a chilly evening where the fictional “Valley Fest” was being held. “He’s trying to make changes. Is what he’s teaching good or bad? There is some bad but there is a lot of good in it as well because he is helping these kids.”
Behind Zapka, a crowd of extras had been watching a karate demonstration led by Daniel, ready to replicate a “Karate Kid” film moment by chopping slabs of ice. But surprise! The crowd gets diverted by bigger razzle dazzle over on Cobra Kai’s stage.
“Stay back and avoid boards flying and bits ending up in your eye,” the director warns over the loudspeaker to a group of extras at one point. Two hours of painstaking work featuring a mix of extras and actors on stage gets edited to about two minutes of furious action culminating in Johnny slamming through multiple slabs of burning concrete. “Cobra Kai! Cobra Kai!” the crowd chants multiple times for the cameras.
Going back to the opening frame of season two, it’s a continuation of the final one from last year with a morose Johnny in his dojo after his student and surrogate son of sorts Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) won the All-Valley karate championship by beating Johnny’s actual son. The big surprise reveal: Kreese enters the door in shadows, a cigar in hand, smoke curling up into the air, a classic film noir moment.
“You did what I always thought you could do,” Kreese tells Johnny. “You won. Cobra Kai is back where it belongs. Back on top! Everybody closed the book on us. They thought we were done. Now they see that the real story has only just begun.”
Daniel also has to battle his own dark forces as he mentors Johnny’s son Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan). And much to his wife’s consternation, he rebuilds Mr. Miyagi’s space and opens his own dojo. (”You can’t let the bullies win!” he proclaims in classic Danny style. “I beat Cobra Kai 30 years ago. I can do it again!”) In the meantime, Danny’s teen daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) gets back into karate herself.
The producers - known for hilarious comedies such as “Hot Tub Time Machine” and the “Harold & Kumar” films - have no problem continuing to highlight how behind the times Johnny is. He uses a landline with a phone straight from 1985. When he sends new students away and tells them to come back tomorrow, he adds: “Bring your checkbooks!” Homework for his students: watching Sly Stallone’s 1987 arm-wrestling film “Over the Top.” And naturally, Johnny has no idea until episode three how to open up a laptop, much less find the Internet on it.
“He’s not coming from a place of hatred,” said producer Josh Heald. “He’s just been stuck in the 80s for the past 30 years.” They didn’t want to turn him into Homer Simpson. “He’s not totally stupid,” Heald added. “He’s just ignorant and naive to all the corrections society made over the years. He challenges them. He is usually wrong but it’s fun to hear his perspective out loud and see how it affects teens who grew up in a helicoptered, sheltered way.
At the same time, they have fun with current-day issues such as social media trolls attacking Daniel for “racial misappropriation” when he puts together a very Miyagi-like YouTube ad. “They’re calling me Daniel LaRacist!” he said, stupefied.
But the big shift in“Cobra Kai” is definitely Kreese hovering around.
Ominous music follows the murky Kreese wherever he goes. When he sneeringly tells Daniel “my condolences” regarding Mr. Miyagi, it really comes from the pit of what might be considered his heart.
Kreese’s presence drives Daniel even more to take down Cobra Kai. “He faked his own death - twice apparently!” Daniel says to his wife.
Kove, the actor whose first film role harkens back 48 years, was convinced to return to the “Karate Kid” world three decades later by the three producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. It was similar to how they were able to get Zubka and Macchio aboard: their pure passion.
“I was taken by the sales pitch,” Kreese said. “These guys live our characters. We are iconic in their lives like I thought Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen were icons.”
Schlossberg said bringing Kove back was key given how identified he is with the role of Kreese, but the producers lied about the character’s return to press before season one aired to ensure the surprise of his arrival would not be spoiled.
They also promised Kove would be a regular season two. “We told him there’s going to be a lot more bang for the buck when you come in for the second season,” Schlossberg said. “It gives our second season a shot of adrenaline. This isn’t warm fuzzy Miyagi stuff.”
Is there pressure for season two now that the show is a success?
“The reviews were phenomenal: 100% on Rotten Tomatoes,” said Mariduena. “All eyes are on us now. It’s going to be hard to replicate it.”
Macchio loves how the producers have been able to take what was a very black-and-white good vs. evil movie franchise and turn the two main characters into complex human beings with both good and bad traits. “There is moral ambiguity,” he said. “And the show works on three levels: the LaRusso world, the Lawrence world and the teen world.”
All ten episodes of “Cobra Kai” season 2 is available on YouTube Premium starting at midnight, April 24, 2019.
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