Over Labor Day weekend, at the urging of a friend whose opinion I generally trust, I watched the entirety of Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid fan-fiction fever dream that originally aired as a web series in 2019. My reluctance to start watching this show was high, only because my memory of what happens in the Karate Kid is very vague and because, in the words of another friend to whom I recommended the show, it’s “boy shit.” Undeterred by this criticism of something I had not seen, I settled into the sofa for what I hoped would be a pleasant viewing experience and was rewarded with something completely unexpected: A thrilling exploration of the contours of two men’s midlife crises.
Cobra Kai picks up some decades after the events of The Karate Kid, but the script has been flipped: Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the quintessential flaxen-haired ‘80s movie villain, is down on his luck, drinking heavily, living in a shitty apartment in Reseda, and bemoaning the state of his life. In stark contrast, his former rival, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) has become a successful car salesman, with a wife, two children, and a palatial home. Their roles have switched, but karate, the one and seemingly only thing that has ever mattered to them, is what really makes them feel alive. Arguably, watching grown men get worked up about karate, of all things, is not very interesting, but the best part about Cobra Kai is how the women in the show treat the men’s obsession with each other and their rivalry for what it is: Not a charming affectation but a real-ass problem that threatens the lives that these men have built for themselves. It’s not just that the teen rivalry, which is arguably dead in the water, is distracting them from their adult lives and causing them to act like teenagers once more—the extremes that these men undergo for their teen karate beef are over-the-top to just about everyone else around them who is able to see the forest for the trees.
Cobra Kai is emblematic of the sort of “family fare” that resonates with Gen X parents and their children—truly a show that both generations can watch together. The first season feels like a pure nostalgia trip, pitting two washed men against each other by resurrecting their old drama for the fans. As previously stated, the Karate Kid and its various spin-offs hold very little cultural significance to me, so the initial experience of watching Cobra Kai was that of bemused curiosity; I approached it as an anthropological exploration of the middle-aged man’s psyche. Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso are two sad little peas, occupying the same pod, but are so wrapped up in their own internal bullshit about getting older, losing relevancy, and also, again, karate, that they are nearly incapable of recognizing the fact that clinging to old rivalries from roughly one hundred years ago is not a good way to live life.
The male midlife crisis is instantly recognizable to anyone from the outside looking in, but Johnny and Daniel are incapable of processing the emotions that eventually drive them to do things like open warring karate dojos and lose a grip on reality. Instead of thinking about their family, their estranged children, or their car dealership business, they are instead re-litigating a feud from their past that neither men have been able to put to rest. Johnny’s newest iteration of Cobra Kai attempts to dial down the rough edges of its past, but the reappearance of John Kreese, a man who is purportedly the devil incarnate, introduces a soupçcon of toxic masculinity to the dojo’s students. What’s nice about Johnny’s midlife crisis is that he is aware enough to recognize that Kreese’s “way of the fist” is not the way in 2020, and tries to teach the men and few women that populate his dojo how to be a good person. Meanwhile, in the fancy part of town, Daniel LaRusso has turned Mr. Miyagi’s former home into a very nice Zen garden and spends time ignoring his wife and confronting his own feelings of mortality and fading relevance by channeling every ounce of energy he has into the dojo.
It’s clear that the midlife crisis for these men is rooted in the fear that the world around them is moving at a pace much faster than they’re willing to accept. Watching these fictional characters navigate the journey by revisiting a pointless, decades-old rivalry is not something I thought would be particularly entertaining, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was. Death is an inevitability and losing touch with what irks the generation that will inherit this shell of a planet is yet another, but these men are facing their mortality in ways that are not healthy or productive. The real star, then, of Cobra Kai, is not the men, but the long-suffering women. Daniel LaRusso’s wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), gets little screen time, but is the sole voice of reason, calmly popping her head in to ask her husband every now and again to tend to his actual job at the dealership and to not let his rivalry with Johnny get in the way of him living his life. Watching the show purely for her reactions throughout is a worthy exercise. She serves as the necessary foil for the men’s antics, pointing out at varying moments that being mad about something that happened 20 years in the past is a waste of energy; why not channel that energy towards something other than stewing in teen resentment for no reason other than pride? It bears repeating that these men are adults, whether they like it or not, and are dealing with their feelings about adulthood in a delayed fashion, by running around the Valley picking fights over an event that happened 30 years ago in high school.
The show is an exercise in very specific ’80s nostalgia, full of muscle cars and Poison songs, tempered with a hearty dose of Gen X man-specific cultural critique about the state of the world today. I was most struck by Johnny’s midlife crisis as it manifested in his stance on online dating, which, unfortunately, mirrors mine. A throwaway plot in the show’s second season focuses on Johnny’s attempt to find love in 2020, navigating the bleak waters of the apps with the help of Miguel, his protegé and surrogate son. For Johnny, dating was easier in his day, when he was a virile young man; finding a hot babe to sleep with was as easy as bumping into a woman at a bar, spilling her drink, offering to buy her a new one, and then sealing the deal. In 2020, this is likely considered harassment. To combat this, Johnny hops on the apps, sits through a litany of dates, and eventually, ends up in front of a woman who, gasp, bumps into him at a bar, spills his drink, and then offers to buy him another. It’s not that everyone is soft, a sea of delicate flowers, while Johnny stands in as the lone wolf destined to drink Coors Banquets alone until death—it’s just that he hasn’t found the right person. But the fear that underscores all of Johnny’s panicked attempts at living an updated 2020 life is not the technology or the small life improvements, it’s actually death—or more specifically, relevancy.