I have on ongoing love affair with 80s culture, so unsurprisingly I’m a fan of the new Karate Kid sequel series Cobra Kai.
This new series picks up decades after the first Karate Kid movie, with antagonist kid Johnny now taking the role of protagonist. Karate comes back into the picture as both Johnny and Daniel take stock of where their lives have gone since their showdown in high school.
A few episodes in, I can confirm that this is a fun show to watch, and I’m intrigued to see where it goes from here.
The thing is, there’s not that much that’s original or spectacularly deep about Cobra Kai. It’s good, standard high-school action movie fare. And like any good 80s movie, it’s chock-full of TV tropes (after all, 80s movies are tropes unto themselves):
“In storytelling, a trope is . . . a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.” – TVTropes.org
Here are just some of the ones that stand out in Cobra Kai:
- Washed up guy remakes life
- Washed up guy learns to mentor kid
- Washed up guy has a son he has neglected
- Training montage makes person awesome
- Wimpy kid learns self-defense/gets strong
- Single mom overprotects son
- Mean girls
- Bully kids
- Nice girl starts hanging out with mean girls
- Loser kid falls for girl out of his league
- Old rivals run into each other for the first time in years
- Nerds gang up to fight bullies
- Old athlete hero becomes soft/ignorant/arrogant
- Old athlete hero takes the sport back up and gets back in shape.
It’s easy to only use one or two tropes. It takes a true artist to harmonize so many. Just look at how both Daniel and Johnny both get the protagonist treatment in this series. Showing the perspective of two complicated characters takes more skill than showing an evil bully. Flipping the script of certain tropes – like having the downtrodden nerds learning karate from the big, bad Cobra Kai dojo – also keeps things fresh.
While Cobra Kai‘s use of tropes occasionally crosses over into the cliche, it mostly keeps its balance. And that’s something for the show’s creators to be proud of.
This is all Shakespeare was doing, anyway. His comedies leaned on tropes, as did his tragedies. The tropes were the reason they lasted so long and survived so many culture shifts. The tropes are timeless images of the personal and social struggles of human beings for esteem, strength, survival, and harmony. This is why Karate Kid will probably last for at least another generation, and it’s why Cobra Kai (so far) is a worthy modern-day successor to the franchise.
Based on the large number of tropes – I can already guess that Johnny and Daniel will be teaming up by the end to fight some greater enemy. I’m not even mad about that. That would be a great ending.