‘Cobra Kai’ takes Advantage of Nostalgia during Hard Times

Netflix’s new investment in Youtube Red’s previously owned Karate Kid continuation ‘Cobra Kai’ proves to be a success due to nostalgia and new exposure.

Two weeks after its Netflix debut, “Cobra Kai” has become yet another production saved by Netflix’s expanded platform. The series is a continuation of the “Karate Kid” franchise, rehashing the success of the 80s movie series and pushing its popularity to new heights.

“Cobra Kai” follows Johnny Lawrence (portrayed by William Zabka), the antagonistic bully to Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio’s character) in the original series who has now hit rock bottom as an unemployed handyman. After he observes an altercation where a teenager named Miguel (portrayed by Xolo Maridueña) is being picked on by bullies, Lawrence steps in and defends him. Taking Miguel under his wing, he gains inspiration to reopen the Cobra Kai dojo and continue its legacy of striking first, striking hard and having no mercy.

The show also follows a grown-up Daniel Larusso, now a successful business owner and car salesman, as he struggles with the passing of Mr. Miyagi and tries to honor his memory. Past betrayals and misunderstandings restart the rivalry between his character and Lawrence. Their feud poisons the teenagers in the series and makes a dramatic impact on their lives.

“Cobra Kai” is special because the series uses the 80s series’ previous dynamics to its advantage. An audience that once rooted for Daniel Larusso’s underdog is split on who they should support since both, as adults, have good intentions but are haunted by the demons of their pasts. Larusso and Lawrence act as wise elders rather than teenagers shaped by their senseis’ lessons. Applying old-school martial arts brutality nowadays adds a comedic touch. The series challenges sexism, cruel fighting tactics and questionable advice that was consistent with 80s values but not the modern world. However, it remains fun, playing on 80s elements and reinventing the dream of being a karate master for the modern audience.

“Cobra Kai” debuted three years ago on Youtube Premium to critical acclaim and multiple Emmy award nominations. Sony made the decision to sell the show to Netflix as part of a choice to let go of scripted content. However, the choice was the best thing that could have happened to the series. On Aug. 28, the show premiered on Netflix and hit the No. 1 spot opening weekend; demand for the series rose 110% that week.

For the most part, moving to Netflix guarantees mass exposure and attention, as approximately 60 million “U.S.” adults have subscriptions versus Youtube Premium’s estimated 20 million “U.S.” subscribers. Greater exposure is not the only reason for the series’ newfound popularity: Nostalgia plays a significant part as well.

Pandemic times bring forth many consumption changes due to self-quarantine and the general feeling of escape entertainment brings. When states were enforcing stay-at-home orders, citizens found new ways to cope with activities and avenues that they could rely on when they found themselves with an abundance of free time. People looked into streaming services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Video when exploring their binge watching needs.

So, what does this have to do with nostalgia? Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College, says that in this day and age, things seem to move so fast. Everything is new and rapidly changing: new technology, new inventions, new discoveries and more. At a time when things seem to slow down or get hectic, Batcho said “having a nostalgic episode means you’re going to feel good, calm, at peace,” which is why people gravitate towards it.

Because this pandemic is still in effect and things are uncertain, nostalgia is appealing. In a time where being alone and distanced from others is a good thing, people seek out reliability and predictability. Engaging in nostalgia — whether it is through watching a childhood favorite, traipsing through old books or visiting a significant place — brings both aspects. Batcho concludes that, naturally, “people want to go back to the feelings they had when they believed life was better.”

“Cobra Kai” uses this to its advantage by adapting an iconic 80s film to fit modern life while maintaining excitement for new audiences. Teenagers and kids can relate to the teenagers on screen. As for adults, they could relate to the adults who they connected with in previous films as kids. And for people who have never seen the films, the show embeds flashbacks and context to get people caught up.

The series is certainly a welcome escape. The amount of success and fan interest from its short time Netflix speaks volumes about its true value. After all, nostalgia is welcome company when things are unpredictable or get stressful.

Pandemic times are tough, but if a show can give people the clarity and emotional stability they need to carry on, it is doing something right. The decision to join Netflix and craft a show with such depth and care for the significance of the film series demonstrates new potential for rebooting other successful franchises. Is it a worthy watch? Yes, sensei!

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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