“Cobra Kai” wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the 1984 hit feature “The Karate Kid.” But if the show were simply trading on nostalgia alone, its popularity would have waned long before the fourth season aired last winter. Instead, the latest installment of the Netflix series was its most-watched yet, as William Zabka, reprising his role as Johnny Lawrence, worked with his nemesis-turned-reluctant-collaborator, Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, to fight for the heart and soul of karate kids everywhere in the Valley.
Guest stars from the film and its sequels have been joining the fun since the show began, including Martin Kove as OG dark arts sensei John Kreese, Elisabeth Shue as Daniel’s (and Johnny’s) love interest Ali, and Tamlyn Tomita, who played Daniel’s girlfriend Kumiko in “The Karate Kid Part II.”
The fourth season was no exception, with the return of the maniacal Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who tormented Daniel in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Macchio has long been vocal about not loving that sequel. But the writers have managed to expand on the character to the point that, Macchio notes, some of his most poignant onscreen moments in the already-completed fifth season are with Terry Silver.
The comedy-action-melodrama all started with three “Karate Kid” superfans who couldn’t let it go. Screenwriters Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (the “Harold and Kumar” movies) and Josh Heald (“Hot Tub Time Machine”), friends since their teens, have watched the movie hundreds of times, they acknowledge in a group video chat. Says Heald, “It was the first movie I bootlegged off a VHS when VCRs became something in people’s homes.”
When the 30th anniversary edition came out, of course they bought it and listened to Zabka discuss his role as Johnny Lawrence, who bullies Daniel before — ancient spoiler alert — losing to him in the big karate match. On the commentary, Zabka spoke of how he had never considered Johnny a villain. Hearing about his approach set the creators’ minds in motion. “What happens to this guy? What was that path? Is there a way to dig deeper on this character? It started from there,” says Hurwitz.
The creators worked on the storylines before approaching the actors about doing a series, “coasting on wings of optimism that they were going to say yes when the time came,” Heald says. Zabka was game. He had long felt he wasn’t done with his iconic first role — “that somehow, I would have to go through the eye of the needle of Johnny Lawrence, to turn him inside out and get through to the other side of what he was ,” he says, on a separate video chat with Macchio. “I’ve had a chance to do colors and layers and depths, and it’s been an absolute joy as an actor and artist to do that.”
Macchio took a bit more convincing, but once he was in, he knew he’d made the right decision. “It was magic, just like it was with Pat Morita the first time,” he says of his first scene with Zabka in Johnny’s Cobra Kai dojo. The two are also executive producers on the show. “Billy’s theory is that this project has been kissed from the moment we were cast in the original film. And it has that good fortune and luck — but not without the hard work.”
What happens to Goliath after the slingshot takes him down? In Johnny’s case, he’s a heavy drinker with a bad attitude and a badass car, still stuck on an ’80s soundtrack and mind-set. Coming across a young boy getting bullied, Johnny fights off the attackers, who happen to be high school kids — and a sensei and his student are born. Daniel, meanwhile, is kicking the competition as an auto dealer with a beautiful wife, children and home.
Naturally, the two are going to face off. As each accrue their own students and create their own dojos, they’re drawn right back into the grudges of 30 years ago, reacting with little more sense than their teenage counterparts, and the plot is set in motion.
“The shifting perspectives and playing with archetypes is a lot of fun, and it all starts with Johnny,” Schlossberg says. Reversal after reversal means you never know quite who you’re rooting for. The stakes build and the battles become bonkers, including a brawl throughout a high school and a home-invasion karate throw down.
Do the actors ever think the plot twists goes too far? “All day, every day,” says Zabka, laughing. “On every page,” agrees Macchio. Notes Hurwitz, “We jumped the shark a long time ago — and everyone rode the shark with us. So we make choices that are surprising but believable.”
And it’s all done with cheeky humour. “Every time I go into a season, I have to put 95% of my brain to sleep” in order to attain Johnny’s “caveman mentality,” Zabka says. “But the blind obsession is what’s funny about the character, somebody who just sees it their way and has a lot to learn and is earnest about that. All of the characters are falling forward constantly, and the audience is on that ride, rooting for everybody. How great is that, to have this embrace from fans all over the world?”