When Cobra Kai—the You Tube Premium series that continues The Karate Kid story—premiered last May, one might’ve anticipated a cheesy, nostalgic gimmick.
But to critics’ and fans’ great delight, the 10-episode first season was a nuanced, wonderful surprise. The half-hour series did what many in the current revival craze could not: It created a story that honored its past while forging a totally new direction.
“It’s nostalgic, but it’s also fresh and relevant,” says Ralph Macchio, who returned to play Daniel LaRusso 34 years after that famous crane kick. “It tastes like comfort food but feels like you’re eating it for the first time. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama, it’s not an action show, but yes, it is. It’s all of it.”
When both Macchio and William Zabka, who plays Daniel’s rival, Johnny Lawrence, were first approached about reprising their iconic roles, they were cautious. Both credit executive producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg for having the right vision and tone for the series.
“Their passion and vision for it was so clear and so contagious,” Zabka says. “These guys love it and they are huge fans of The Karate Kid and they know the characters inside and out sometimes better than we do. It was the right time, the right people, the right platform.
The Johnny inside of me kind of stirred. I always say Johnny’s crusty eyes opened up and they tapped into something. I loved the idea of coming in from Johnny’s point of view and giving him some depth. One thing I just said going into it is, ‘I don’t want to repeat the past. Are we setting Johnny up for a 2020 crane kick to the face?’”
They most decidedly were not. The series made Daniel the successful owner of a car dealership with a loving wife and two children. Time has not been so kind to Johnny, who is living in an apartment building, estranged from his only son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), and working odd jobs. Johnny is stuck in the past, his whole life set off on a downward trajectory after his high school karate glory days.
“Society [has] changed so much [in the] last 10 years, there’s something really fresh about playing a guy who is outside that box,” Zabka says. “And bringing people up to speed about where we are today through his eyes.”
In the first season, Johnny opens up the Cobra Kai dojo and, mirroring the events of the 1984 movie, helps the picked-on Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) learn karate and prepare for the big All Valley Championship, with the finals against Robby, who Daniel has trained.
In the second season, Daniel continues his journey back to karate by opening up the Miyagi-Do, teaching a new crop of kids the way Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) taught him all those years ago.
“It was so important to me to have the Miyagi character woven throughout the series in some shape or form,” Macchio says. “He’s a big part of who LaRusso is. Now it’s part of him finding his balance and filling the void of Miyagi and passing on that legacy.”
Macchio affectionately refers to the high school storyline on the series as the “karate soap opera of it all.” “Second season has all that comfort food and that nostalgic feel that you love and you’re craving, yet it takes you in a direction you would never expect. The young story gets even deeper and more entwined and involved and more invested.”
The high school storylines also have Macchio and Zabka working with actors who are close to the age they were when they first started the franchise. “These kids are professionals,” Zabka says. “I say ‘kids,’ but they are young adults. All of them started when they were younger, so they have a lot of experience in the business. There’s really nobody that’s green like I was. When I did Karate Kid, it was my first movie ever. I remember asking Pat Morita [to] keep an eye out for me and anything I can do better, let me know. And a number of times he would whisper in my ear and give me some advice that I really took to the bank.”
The biggest thing Zabka and Macchio do is lead by example, Zabka says: “Ralph and I have been around the block enough. We just try to set a tone of a great working environment of a lot of fun and mutual respect for everybody.”
The first season ended on a cliffhanger, with the return of Martin Kove as Johnny’s sensei, John Kreese. Kove plays a pivotal role in the series’ second season.
“Marty and I are dear friends,” Zabka says. “We just felt like these guys aren’t done yet. There’s something unresolved between Johnny and Kreese, and for a number of years we just kind of bounced ideas around and thought, ‘What would that look like?’ But we never cracked the code. When it finally happened, it was just thrilling. It’s a great long burn all through Season Two of their relationship and the levels of complexity between them. Sensei/student, yet now they are both sensei, seeing eye-to-eye… There’s a lot of love, a lot of pain, a lot of dysfunction and all of those levels were just incredible to play with Marty.”
This season also reunites Johnny with his fellow Cobra Kais, as Rob Garrison, Tony O’Dell and Ron Thomas return to play Johnny’s old high school pals Tommy, Jimmy and Bobby. “After The Karate Kid, it was like a fraternity. We just instantly clicked and we’ve been great friends all these years. I felt a little sad and a little lonely that the guys weren’t around for the ride last season.”
Both Macchio and Zabka said it was relatively easy slipping back into their characters. The chemistry was still there after all these years. What’s been a bit more challenging is doing the karate. Zabka said he suffered a mild concussion after one too many body slams, and Macchio jokes that it definitely takes more stretching than it used to.
“It was easier when I was 19 or 21,” he says, laughing. “Martial arts has so many areas that are great for you spiritually. It is an art form for your mind and your body. It’s work. It hurts, and it’s tough to get your leg up there as high as you used to, but we worked hard at it.”
Macchio, who is currently filming Season Three of HBO’s The Deuce, says there was definitely a time when he wanted to distance himself from Daniel: “I was done playing the character, but the world was not done with me playing that character, and it was tougher to get out of the trappings of typecasting. They see you a certain way. Plus, he was a kid, and even though I look young for my age, I was trying to get roles out of the adolescent stage. It was challenging.”
Now, he says, it’s the other way around. “It’s good to have something in your life that affects people that positively for so long and brings a smile to people. I’m the lucky one. That’s how I look at it. So I’m loving it.”
Season Two of Cobra Kai premieres Wednesday, April 24 on YouTube Premium.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .