The morning after we watched the first episode of “Cobra Kai,” my husband told me he dreamt happy dreams about the Valley all night. Happy dreams about the San Fernando Valley?
Well, he was born and raised there, if it helps to understand the mysterious workings of his REM sleep stage. But to utter anything positive about any suburban “air-conditioned nightmare” would have been anathema in the Bay Area only a few years ago. That is no longer the case, as everyone talks about swapping his prized Victorians for McMansions, preferably out of state, making a small fortune in the process. (Might as well—they’d removed all the walls in the Victorians, in effect turning them into those “open concept” McMansions.)
“Cobra Kai,” the YouTube Premium series premiering its second season on Wednesday, is a show that belongs to a specific place, and that place is the Valley. Don’t believe the lazy thinkers accusing creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg of orientalism and “cultural appropriation.” Critics can always spot something borrowed—no really, Karate is a Japanese form of martial arts that the Japanese themselves lifted from the Chinese—after which the “cultural appropriation” narrative writes itself. It’s just that this type of analysis has nothing to do with the show in question.
In the San Fernando Valley, this appropriation-spotting exercise does not require much effort because the place is, and has always been, what would have been called “multicultural” a decade ago. When my husband was growing up, it was the kind of end of history place where Jews and Christians toasted the same Wonder Bread. So a karate dojo belongs in the Valley because its inhabitants are curious people, and kids need something to do.
The Valley looks like all other American suburbs, only more so. It’s hot, stretches out all the way into the hills, and nobody walks there. If back in my husband’s childhood, neighborhood kids all played together on their sprawling front lawns, filling the cul-de-sacs with laughter and photo-ops, that era is long gone. I can drive for hours now, and not see a single soul. They are all in backyards, probably swimming in their pools. On the outside, it looks more lifeless than ever intended.
The Valley might be nondescript, but it was built with a distinct sense of purpose, which is to raise the next generation of America. Form follows function so closely, it’s barely allowed to exist. In terms of parenting convenience, however, it can’t be beat.
Fittingly, probably a good half of coming-of-age movies in the 1980s were filmed there. One of those films was “The Karate Kid.” This 1984 children’s classic kicked off its own franchise, but by 1989 its creator Robert Mark Karmen had seemingly run out of ideas. Besides, by then the children who fell for the original’s gimmickry and easy plot-lines were all grown up and on the way out of the suburbs.
“The Karate Kid” relies excessively on tropes to propel its storyline and establish characters. The viewer has to take it for granted, for instance, that figures dressed up as skeletons for a costume party have to be the bad guys. The writing is so sloppy that the generation raised on the film started noticing hero Danny La Russo can be easily recast as a bully.
This brings us back to the genius of the American suburb: It’s so generic and boring that when teens get restless there is no alternative to making your own fun. With a spark of inspiration, in the country where the sky is the limit, things fall into place.
The DIY ethic that made everything from garage bands to Apple computers possible, and that drives people to knock down the walls of their 100-year-old houses, is a product of the American suburb. It made “Cobra Kai” possible too, by turning “The Karate Kid” on its head, while continuously referring back to it in the most nostalgic manner.
When we see the “Cobra Kai” protagonist Johnny, played by William Zabka (Who knew he was such a good actor?) pick himself up by the bootstraps, it’s very much within the do-it-yourself suburbanite tradition. The first season started off as inspirational and optimistic but because, apart from the work ethic, nothing I’ve described above carries any kind of moral message, the fatherless Johnny failed to fashion himself into a father figure, and ended up creating a monster.
Visually, “Cobra Kai” is nondescript, just like the Valley itself. Save for the occasionally attractive female leads, the screen offers no visual feast. There are the never-ending strip malls, very tall palm trees, and hills. Sometimes people from Southern California call this landscape “surreal.” I’m not sure about that.
The blandness of “Cobra Kai” is both true to the original and refreshing. “The Karate Kid” was no eye candy either. It was ’80s-drab, not that the middle school demo cared for any of that.
Digital technology gave filmmakers too much to play with. The ability to manipulate the picture can become a kind of substitute for narrative; I’m thinking of critically acclaimed films and TV series like “Better Call Saul.” That series’s plotline all but evaporated in a few seasons.
“Cobra Kai” doesn’t need to be visually enticing because it’s moved by the narrative. In fact, since its charm is very DIY, the series is better off looking ordinary. Fittingly, it’s on YouTube, so the medium is the message. Anyone can make a movie and put it on YouTube. Each episode was only a half-hour long, and the briefness itself is very Punk Rock, which circles back to the DIY ethic.
So is the world of fandom. Zabka, it turns out, never got over that Johnny character he played 30 years ago. And the kids who grew up watching the cheesy “Karate Kid” movies were stuck on them long enough to figure out, many years later, the real hero of the first, and the best of the three original films, is Johnny.
If the critics’s opinions are depressing dead-ends, visit the Reddit discussion groups. Those are full of excitement and deep textual analysis, the kind of conversations filmmakers want viewers to have about who is right and who is wrong. Critics, of course, are too cool for these questions.
I’m looking forward to the second season, but I’m worried, too. If the series hinges on a novel perspective, spirited storytelling, and Zabka’s acting, it will not take much for the whole experiment to go south. Not with Zabka’s acting, I’m quite confident in that. But Hurwitz and Schlossberg may feel a temptation to answer the woke critics who see cultural appropriation and toxic masculinity everywhere. The charge is total nonsense, the fans couldn’t care less, and the writers should be above it, but I just have a feeling that they might decide to address it.
I hope the new season will avoid an increase in production quality. The charm of “Cobra Kai” is its DIY aesthetic, and I hope they stick with that. I don’t know how it all is going to work out, but season one was such a perfect fusion of form and function, the show became an instant classic.