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Cobra Kai's executive producers explain what it really takes to reboot a beloved franchise

By Adam Pockross
William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in Cobra Kai

Imagine growing up loving a movie franchise with all your heart and soul, and then 30 odd years later getting the opportunity to reboot it. Sure, you’d jump at the chance, but how exactly would you go about it? What’s the playbook for turning nostalgia into quality entertainment for the modern age? 

Well, if anyone has the answers to such questions, it’s longtime friends and Karate Kid lovers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg, who parlayed that love into writing, directing, and executive-producing hit show Cobra Kai, which is getting a third season on Netflix in 2021 after cold kicking it at YouTube for its first two seasons. Ahead of the third season, though, Seasons 1 and 2 will be available on Netflix starting Aug. 28.

For those just coming on board, Cobra Kai picks up a few decades after Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) All Valley Karate Tournament-winning crane kick to the face of big-time jerk Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). The show follows their rivalry into the modern day, which also entangles their high school-aged kids when Johnny decides to bring back the no-mercy-having Cobra Kai dojo. Daniel is soon driven to spend a lot less time selling high-end automobiles, and a lot more teaching students the enlightened ways of Miyagi-Do Karate. Alas, when Johnny’s former sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) comes back to town, the inner peace and balance that Daniel-san espouses is tough to come by.

The show is obviously sweating with nostalgia, but that’s just half the fun. So while speaking to Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossberg, SYFY WIRE got some great advice from the EPs on bringing back a beloved IP with the right sense of then and now. Just consider them your own personal reboot senseis. 

COBRA KAI | The Karate Kid Legacy Continues | Netflix

“For us, and this would be the first piece of advice coming out of any of our mouths: You really have to love that piece of IP,” Heald says, while noting that it wasn’t Sony who was hoping to reboot The Karate Kid brand, but the trio delivering a pitch that Sony couldn’t say no to. “It was us coming to Sony with this ridiculously developed story in terms of what we wanted to do, what the tone was, where it was going, how it was reintroducing and reframing the themes of The Karate Kid but bringing it up to date and being honest with the times.”

So you’ve got the love part down, but modernization is a bit more tricky, which leads to Heald’s second piece of advice: “Find a way to do it that doesn’t feel like you’re just doing the same thing again. We intentionally wanted to find the ways of reintroducing these characters in a new way without undermining who they are in the movie.” 

Essentially though, it all comes down to storytelling.

“It’s finding your passion and finding a way of including everyone in that passion. Whether it’s the person who has that extreme fandom that you share, or someone who’s never heard of this thing but is sucked into the story because you have a good story to tell despite the nostalgia,” Heald continues. “So that would be the last piece of advice, is don’t use nostalgia as a crutch; use it as something to lift the moment, but don’t rely on it to save everything.”  

But is there such a thing as too much nostalgia? And how do you balance the line between paying nostalgia its due and moving forward with the new?

“The key is it all coming from a place of fandom, and you wanting to revisit the past for a reason today. As long as you’re telling a relevant story for today’s audience, you can use as much nostalgia as you want, in fact you’ll be thanked for it,” Schlossberg says. “The good stories are ones where you’re really focused on a new story, and you’re really invested in something totally different, but the nostalgia is being used for storytelling purposes, not just to get you to pay for a movie ticket or to sign onto a streaming site.”

William Zabka, Xolo Mariduena in Cobra Kai

That said, you can’t forget about the OG fans.

“It’s a combination of doing something new, but also giving the fans who built this fandom what they want,” Schlossberg says, while pointing out that they didn’t start the show out with Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), Johnny’s star Cobra Kai student. Instead, they kick it off with a flashback of Johnny, defeated and humiliated, face down on the All Valley Karate Tournament mat, and then segueing seamlessly into him passed out, face down yet again, now in his sad, so-valley apartment, 30-some years later. And you immediately know, time has been another kick in the face for the has-been. 

“It’s trying to give the fans what they want, and what they expect, but in a new package telling a relevant story for today,” Schlossberg adds. 

Granted, to know what the fans want, as a creator, it really helps to be a fan yourself. But you do have to approach the source material with a discerning eye, particularly when it comes to putting that beloved IP on a pedestal.  

“For us, when we’re approaching Cobra Kai, because we love drawing from all of the films in the Miyagi-verse, part of the fun and part of the challenge is keeping our show consistent in tone, consistent in energy, consistent in quality, perhaps in ways that the original Karate Kid films may have suffered in certain ways from,” Hurwitz says, while noting that their eyes are “wide open” that not every moment in the original trilogy quite lived up to the first film. “But we own all the actions of those movies, and part of the fun for us is digging deeper, and looking at moments from those films in a whole new light that may give them the depth or pathos that maybe was not intended at the time, but can help inform our story now.”

Cobra Kai

Perhaps if you follow the above advice, you too can instill a long-lost, much-loved IP with new life. But careful what you ask for because you might end up star struck, working with your childhood heroes. 

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get over it,” Heald says, while also noting they have established friendships with the cast and been through the “war of production and promotion.” But that “doesn’t diminish the fact that you get to spend your days with Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence and Sensei Kreese.”

Of course, those beloved characters, and the opportunity to see what they’re up to all these years later, is what made people tune in to the show in the first place. But it’s the dynamic between them that kept people watching through two seasons.

“One of the elements of The Karate Kid that makes it easy to craft a modern day story is that it’s really about a mentor and a student. So it’s just natural to think that now the student is the mentor. So you get to have the new generation that way in a seamless way that makes sense,” Schlossberg says.

Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan, Ralph Macchio in Cobra Kai

“The more seasons you have, the more kinds of stories you can tell,” Hurwitz says, while looking forward to Season 3. “In life, every day, every year, you have new phases of your life and new challenges that you go through, and to be able to explore these new challenges through characters that people have a real affection for is a gift.”

It’s safe to say that Cobra Kai making the jump to Netflix will be a gift to many folks who wouldn’t have otherwise had a chance to see it. And the EPs are plenty ready to share their Karate Kid love with even more of the masses, particularly at a time like this.

“You know, right now, the world’s a pretty messed up place and if people can escape for a few hours watching Johnny and Daniel’s continued rivalry, then it’s gonna be fun for us to watch an audience get to do that,” Hurwitz adds.

Cobra Kai Season 3 bows on Netflix in 2021, with Seasons 1 and 2 debuting this Friday, Aug. 28.