Cobra Kai and 80s Nostalgia

A few years back I’d heard vaguely about a new show called Cobra Kai that was a kind of update of the 1984 film The Karate Kid. Specifically, the show starred Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the two rivals from the original film. I didn’t think much about it at the time. I’m not, as readers know, a big TV person.

Recently, however, I’d heard a lot of buzz about season 3 of the series dropping on Netflix, and the buzz was generally positive. I asked around, and the people I talked to liked it. I needed a bit of a break from the reading I was doing, so yesterday evening, I settled down to watch the first episode.

I can’t think of another television show that has surprised me so much by exceeding my expectations as much as Cobra Kai did. I realize that much of it is an exercise in 80s nostalgia, but for me, it hit all of the right buttons. Consider:

In the original film, Daniel LaRusso had just moved to Reseda, California from the east coast (specifically, Newark, NJ). When the movie came out in June 1984, I had been living in Granada Hills, California, not far from Reseda, having moved less than a year earlier from the east coast. So his character, not much older than me at the time, resonated with me, the outsider in a new place.

I went to high school in Reseda, California. My single favorite line from a Tom Petty song is from “Free Fallin'”, when Petty sings, “And it’s a long day, living in Reseda / There’s a freeway running through the yard.” All those places that showed up in the film were familiar to me, as they would be to any kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid-1980s.

Watching the Cobra Kai episodes brought all of that back in unexpected ways. Ralph Macchio and William Zabka are now in their 50s with kids of their own. (I’m not quite in my 50s but I’m getting very close.) But they are still there in the Valley, and still tied to the people and places they knew growing up. There were clever parallels and reversals that made the show that much more enjoyable. And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

The music in the series is perfect, with touchstones to the past. I some ways, I think of the 80s nostalgia in Cobra Kai the way the previous generation likely thought of the 50s nostalgia in Back to the Future. The show is dotted with clever humor. It is, for me at least, a complete delight, a surprise, and I can’t wait to watch more of it. (For those wondering, I’ve made it through the first season, so no spoilers, please).

I’ve been wanting my kids to see the original Karate Kid films for a some time now. They’ve enjoyed other movies from that era–The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Ferris Buller’s Day Off to name a few–and I thought they’d like The Karate Kid and that afterward, the might like Cobra Kai. Having watching it, however, I realize that they’ll lack the sense of nostalgia for the time and place. I think there is something special about The Karate Kid for kids who were around my age and living in the San Fernando Valley in 1984. Everyone else might enjoy the film and the show, but they lack a certain visceral context.

I’m not particularly fond of the trend in movies and television of rehashing what has worked int the past. It shows a decided lack of originality and creativity. But when it is done as well as it has been done in Cobra Kai, it can really be something enjoyable and special.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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