How “Cobra Kai” succeeds with nostalgia where others fail

Anyone that follows me on Twitter has likely noticed that I’ve spent the last few days obsessing over “Cobra Kai”, and I even wrote an article on my own site explaining why you should go watch the show, if you haven’t already (that recommendation still stands, so go here if you need to read why it’s a great idea to join the dojo).

This time, though, I’ll try to limit my praise of this incredibly entertaining show to what is the main component in so much of the content we’re exposed to these days: nostalgia. After years of experience, Hollywood has come to realize that millennials are instantly drawn to nostalgic content (i.e., content that reminds them of things they liked as kids), which is why they keep pushing more and more established properties our way – they even considered making a “Tetris” movie TRILOGY, if you can believe it. As long as we keep watching these movies or shows, they’ll keep making them – probably greenlighting them instead of original properties (which is, in its own way, a shame – but let’s leave that discussion for another day).

In that nostalgic content threshold, few movies and TV shows have managed to stand above the others, and “Cobra Kai” is one of them. It’s a sequel show to “The Karate Kid” films, but what is it about it that has worked so well for both fans and non-fans of the films? It’s a good question, that has an unmistakably simple answer: it’s done with a balance of narrative quality and originality.

Because “Cobra Kai” is a work of love and respect to the 1980s classics that preceded it, and it fully understands that you cannot simply rely on nostalgia to make a compelling narrative. Things from the original films show up here and there, but they always have a narrative and/or character reason to happen. For example, there’s a nostalgia-filled episode in season 2 where Johnny meets his old friends from the “Cobra Kai” dojo, and they were able to bring most of the original actors back to reprise their roles. It’s a look back at their younger days and it’s great to see them all again, but the narrative is set up to make Johnny understand who he is as a person, and how this can be affected by the presence of John Kreese, his old sensei. Johnny learns and grows within his arc in the story thanks to this encounter. I have not seen a nostalgic aspect introduced in the show that does not pay off from a character or plot perspective, which is more than you can say about most things.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the show does not only rely on the narrative of the original films, but builds on them with the incursion of new characters, all of which are incredibly imagined and fit perfectly well within this universe where karate is the coolest thing for teenagers to do (which, of course, seems unlikely and silly for our 2020 culture, but the show makes it believable). Characters like Miguel, Robby or Hawk are just as memorable and, at times, more nuanced, than the characters of “The Karate Kid” and its sequels, so they perfectly complement the legacy characters like Johnny or Daniel.

All of this is to say that nostalgia works, sure… but it needs a bit more of the kinds of things that “Cobra Kai” brings to the table.

If you’re among the group that has not seen “Cobra Kai”, I really hope you take my advice and give this show a chance. You won’t regret it, and you will get your perfect dose of a nostalgia that’s so great because it’s complemented by originality, comedy, drama, and above all, fun – something we all desperately need in COVID-19 times.

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