YouTube Red’s “Cobra Kai,” a re-creation of “The Karate Kid,” is a good piece of cultural criticism and cultural nostalgia, and it’s willing to fight America’s class wars in Orange County.
The original actors (Ralph Macchio and William Zabka) are back. The good kid everyone rooted for back in 1984 has since turned into an upper-middle class success running car dealerships and dealing with his teenage daughter’s problems, now that she only cares about cool girls and rich kids. His moment of morality is now endlessly replayed for money. It’s become a part of American celebrity, the biggest form of inequality there is.
The cruel and arrogant kid has ended up a loser, divorced with a kid who hates him. He’s a habitual drunk with no future. He’s our hero, learning to deal with an America where, to quote another 80s hero, Rodney Dangerfield, he doesn’t get no respect. He’s working class, a handyman, and gets treated with contempt by wealthier people. To add insult to injury, he lives in self-contempt, because he knows that America loves the other kid.
This loser decides to bring back the ruthlessness of Cobra Kai: Strike first, strike hard. Maybe the nice kid fit the Reagan years, when everything was going to be morning in America, but for the age of Trump, you need to toughen up and deal with the misery. Who believes we all have a great future together ahead of us?
For the successful, tranquility and therapy is great, because it means they don’t even have to bother about the suffering of other Americans. But for the people who live damned close to misery, the tough virtues that come out of anger, which alone can tame the violent passions of the heart, are an absolute necessity. When you live humiliated, because you’re just as American as anyone else, but everyone else has it so much better — whether you’re an ugly teenager or poor or any of the other social types you see on the show — then you need to learn discipline, to take the punishment, and try to get to something better. You need a hero, in short.
The best thing about the show is that this working class guy becomes a protector who teaches kids how to look after themselves and each other. He’s the one adult who won’t pretend their misery isn’t real just because it doesn’t fit with an ideology of peace and non-judgment. This is not to say that he’s a good guy — by no means. He abandoned his kid, to begin with. But our good guys don’t really do good for most people. Maybe we should take a chance on people who are not afraid of pain.
Most of the show is not about adults, however, it’s about our kids. “Cobra Kai” does more than a bit to make fun of millennials, but it does far more to show they’re suffering new forms of American misery. The show is pretty good at showing that the digital wasteland promotes celebrities who are worshiped and who encourage people to have nothing but contempt for themselves and especially for weirdos.
And now there’s digital bullying, where you can hide behind anonymity and tell other kids to kill themselves. That’s one part of America we’d rather not see, but it’s there, and this man who loves pain will deal with it for us. What do the adults do? Complain about cyber-bullying, nod sanctimoniously at safe spaces, and deny piously that there are weirdos. In short, they abandon the weird kids to the tender mercies of digital mobs.
The show gets that if you’re a teenager, you either are noticed or else you probably have a lot of self-contempt to deal with, even if you’re lucky enough to have two parents and to live near a good school. You’re alone, stuck together with many others just like yourself, and with almost no spiritual resources to help you. The solution to teach everyone to love pain and fighting and they’ll thrive may seem fanciful, but it’s got a lot going for it.
And if you suspect kids have any ability to learn, watching this show might drill it into their heads that in our very civilized situation, the tendency of men is to abandon things that don’t work their way and the tendency of women is to control things minutely. Men are opinionated and women pay more attention to detail, so this often works. But it also destroys boys psychologically.
The show goes further to suggest that girls should also be taught martial arts — or any such discipline — just to deal with the ugly social status games typical of high school. But the successful father is a gentle guy, so he doesn’t want to push his daughter. He knows she used to love martial arts, but now she doesn’t, so he’s humiliated — she’s rejecting his most precious test of manhood. She needs his help, actually, but she’s easily embarrassed and a father who falls over flat at the first is not a good teacher of anything.
Meanwhile, the mother is there to rationalize anything the kids do, out of a crazy form of vanity. She’s managed to make her husband utterly useless to his own kids, instead of encouraging him to do more than just work and throw money at their whims. All these people are decent, law-abiding, pillar of the community types. But when it comes to basic things like the character we admired in the plucky Karate Kid, that has been obliterated by rising into a different social class.
Let’s conclude with Pat Morita, the gentle, wise, but strong sensei from the original “Karate Kid.”
He was exotic, being Japanese, but he was even stranger because he was an American patriot, a World War II veteran, recipient of the Medal of Honor. This was unusual to see at the movies in the 1980s, and kids, of course, had no idea about the war. But it’s almost unthinkable now, and yet the man’s military honors are on display in this show at his grave. It’s his legacy that matters.
America has changed so much in one generation, the show suggests, that today it would only be losers who spend time teaching kids things about dealing with pain and suffering, because the successful are far too busy. Their lives don’t involve any striving of this kind, but instead involve stress and insecurity. Part of the problem seems to be that there are no more Pat Moritas out there. We’ve lost something if our heroes don’t teach our kids.
Of course, now America again has lots of veterans, after long years of wars that seem impossible to win. At least this time around the political catastrophe is less troubling than in the Vietnam years, when veterans were not treated with respect. But what if showing respect for veterans really means asking them for help they are uniquely capable of giving? Why not take an idea from the movies and have veterans teach our kids how to toughen up, how to learn some of the self-control and the discipline they need? Like Pat Morita said, it’s not just karate — it teaches you to deal with uncertainty and the insanity-inducing digital technology we live with.