Friday, December 31, 2021

Catch up on Cobra Kai Season 3 before diving into Season 4

© Netflix

Johnny Lawrence Is a Badass with a Heart of Gold on Cobra Kai
by Kim Krober

"Watch Cobra Kai," they said. "You'll love it!"

I've been hearing those words for the past three years, but I didn't want to pay to watch it on YouTube. I was excited when Cobra Kai moved to Netflix last year because I already use that streaming service, but I was too busy binging other shows during the pandemic to give it much thought. Besides, I was never a huge fan of The Karate Kid in my youth.

I remember catching glimpses of the franchise here and there when flipping through cable TV, but it seemed a bit boring and hokey to me. I had very little interest in sports, let alone martial arts. It felt like a guy's movie to me. Ralph Macchio's character Daniel LaRusso looked like a scrawny wimp and not even an interesting wimp like the comic book nerds I still love to this day. Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) bothered me due to his stereotypical Japanese portrayal and because he was practically a slave driver, exploiting free child labor during the "wax on, wax off" scene that everybody loves.

The bullies were very two-dimensional and almost too over-the-top in their desire to "strike first, strike hard, and show no mercy." Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was a rich, arrogant jock who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, although he did look fierce in a skeleton suit. Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) was way out of Daniel's league, which always sorta irritated me because it felt so unrealistic for her to choose Daniel over Johnny. Mature love life decisions like these aren't usually made until college or long after, and many women never stop chasing the bad boys.
Although Ralph Macchio was always cute, I much preferred him in his role in The Outsiders, in which he and the other Greasers played badasses with hearts of gold.

I didn't have high hopes for Cobra Kai, but I thought I'd finally give it a shot last month. To my amazement, I loved the series so much that I binged the entire three seasons in a single weekend, and I can't wait for the fourth installment later this year. What they've managed to do is nothing short of genius. They've weaved heartfelt nostalgia for the original movies by reuniting fan-favorite characters in new scenarios, while also creating new characters to breathe fresh life into the franchise for younger generations. They've brought a rich backstory to the previously two-dimensional bullies, flipping everything you thought you knew about them and making you eager to learn more.

© Netflix

In the '80s, we didn't need to know what motivated cinematic bullies. Johnny Lawrence was a jerk who broke Ali's boombox and beat up Daniel with his cronies for fun and sport. John Kreese (Martin Kove) was a military veteran turned evil sensei with a seemingly personal vendetta against Mr. Miyagi. Biff Tannen threatened to beat up George McFly in Back to the Future if he didn't do his homework assignments. It seems like the Russians were always nefarious as a result of the Cold War tensions. I could go on and on. But now thanks to Cobra Kai, we have more insight into at least why Johnny and Kreese acted the way they did. Kreese's past was darker than night and Johnny didn't have a happy home life, nor was he the spoiled prick he seemed.

I loved seeing the reverse side of things from Johnny's perspective. Ironically, it turns out he is the badass character with the heart of gold that I always admired about Macchio in The Outsiders. Daniel really did come sweeping in on Johnny's home turf, disrupting his love life and practically making a mockery of his passion for karate by winning the All Valley Karate Tournament as a beginner with like a month of training. He also acted like an ass at the Halloween party, prompting the actions of the skeleton crew. In the present, Daniel continues to make a mockery of karate by using it as a cheap sales gimmick to sell used cars, while Johnny continues to hone his craft and has noble ambitions of being a sensei and passing on these defense skills to others.

Cobra Kai is the ultimate story of redemption. Out of all the series I've recently binged, Johnny has had the most satisfying character arc. At the series' start, he's a bit of a washed-up loser, drinking booze in the parking lot of a 7-11 and completely ignoring his responsibilities as a father. All Johnny cares about are fast cars, beer, heavy metal, and women. But by the end of the third season, he's tried to make up for his past mistakes by being a mentor to Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) and other kids who get bullied by teaching them how to fight back. He also spends time trying to patch things up with his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Inadvertently, he also tries to redeem himself with both Daniel and even Ali in a surprisingly touching mini-reunion at Christmas.

By now, Johnny realizes he was a pawn in Kreese's twisted mind games. When Kreese returns to town and inserts himself into the newly resurrected Cobra Kai dojo, he continues to mess with impressionable minds behind Johnny's back. Unfortunately, Johnny is too late on the uptake to prevent the drama and disruption this causes in the community. By the series' end, it becomes clear that Johnny and Daniel must join forces to fight the evil that is Kreese, as they all prepare their dojos for another All Valley Karate Tournament and the inevitable return of Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) from the franchise's third movie.

© Netflix

I'm excited to see how events will unfold in the next season of Cobra Kai. I love Johnny Lawrence and how much his character embodies what was so great about growing up in the '80s before the Internet, social media, cellphones, and other modern technology. It's been a welcomed blast from the past, but they also do a fantastic job with the new generation of kids and keeping my interest in their growth and obstacles. I especially like the character Hawk - Jacob Bertrand does such a brilliant job with him.

If the show's producers and writers can do this much with an unassuming movie villain like Johnny, perhaps they can do the same with other characters we love to loathe. Instead of doing all these reboots and reunions, I want to see more original backstories and creative reinterpretations that enhance these beloved legacies. In my opinion, Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) was the king of '80s bullies. I would love to know more about what made him tick (besides living with his overbearing grandmother and perhaps a lack of a father figure) and see a character arc of his life after the BTTF trilogy. Maybe it would work, and maybe it wouldn't. Maybe you can only catch lightning in a bottle once, and they got extremely lucky that William Zabka makes Johnny such a lovable, well-rounded character. Let's face it, he's the best around and nothing's gonna ever keep him down - not even Daniel LaRusso. I hope to someday meet him at a con!

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Survivor 41 S41E13: One Thing Left to Do... Win


‘Survivor’ caps off a difficult, twisty season with one of the more matched final three in years.

by Jeremy Fogelman

Previously on Survivor, the show was back and the shorter season got us here, with too many twists and a lot of stress and emotion along the way.

As the twists and turns settle and the mystical hourglass of time puts itself back together, we ponder the final question of the season: So why did Erika win? Coming into the finale it was clear that Ricard was by far the strongest threat to win, and everyone acknowledged it. After that, the only game that we knew could never win was Heather’s, despite all of the talk of Probst saying that she never gave up and her kids would be proud.

The most interesting things about Heather were in this episode, one was the reveal of her apparently long term alliance/friendship with Erika that drove so much to this point and the other was her extremely close final firemaking challenge with Deshawn, perhaps the closest one I can recall (other than the Becky/Sondra one which was the race to the bottom). Still, despite being the only person that couldn’t win, at least she went out on a high.

There were a few final twists in a season chock-full of them, starting with the advantage puzzle race, which had some fun misdirects until we saw Erika win -- and probably helped her win immunity. After that, there seemed to be no way that Ricard could stay in the game, and then Xander brought up his idea to maybe use his idol on Ricard... I was actually not sure if the dude would do it after all of his sometimes risky moves so far.

But no, Xander realized that he couldn’t beat Ricard either, so he took the path he thought was the best one -- even though he was ultimately entirely wrong. He mistakenly thought that he could easily beat Erika and misread how the jury saw Heather -- these were ultimately certainly game-ending mistakes. Could he have won against Heather and Deshawn if he had brought along either instead of Erika? Probably not, but perhaps he had a shot if he had done the classic “play fire for myself” instead.

As for Deshawn, he probably had a more competitive game until he threw that “truth bomb” which only served to make himself look worse and Erika look better. It also didn’t help that both Ricard and Heather, the last two sent to the jury, were clearly in the tank for Erika and that Ricard in particular was absolutely brutal in his attacks against Deshawn and Xander. I couldn’t suppress a laugh when he did the “oh, and that’s why it hurt when Deshawn betrayed everyone” line.

But I also had the same reaction when Erika, after hearing that Xander was taking her, wondered to us: “Wait, do I suck?” Clearly not, but Xander absolutely thought so -- and despite being such a fan of the game and pretty well spoken for his age, he clearly didn’t have everything thought through.


Just look at how long it took to answer Liana’s question about social awareness and his game moves -- that delay in itself tells a lot of the story unfortunately. With these three, I was actually rooting for Erika who I thought had played the best game of the three, even if she was definitely saved by the hourglass twist. The best of the season?

Well, these days it’s known that “threats” are really the strategic and social ones, as the days of a physical threat barreling to the final tribal are in the past. So yes, that includes more visible players like Shan or Ricard, and the only way they lasted as long as they did was a combination of social and sometimes physical game.

Which ultimately means that the game really does still matter for the balanced game, and the “under the radar but actually game savvy” game is the best way to win. But as we heard from the jury, many of them tried the same one -- it was only Erika that managed to pull it off. Another great moment was the various speeches from Naseer, who is absolutely a highlight in a cast that is already uniformly stellar.

I mean not since 'Millennials vs Gen-X' or 'David vs Goliath' have we got such a well-balanced cast, and although Erika dominated the final votes (only Danny voted for Deshawn), it was perhaps the strongest final three in recent memory (and it wouldn’t be fair to count Season 40 since those were all winners).

And just like then, a cast that will be hard to pick favorites that you really need to see back -- each of those casts had like ten people and Season 41 may be even more than that. I strongly expect to see Shan back, but I could easily see plenty of others in the mix. Overall, the season was a pretty fun one, a decent trip back to Fiji -- mayhaps the twists got a little out of control, but we had a great cast and deserving winner.

Next season on Survivor 42, dangerous as ever, different sorts of challengers, new risks, crazy twists, “no food” and a relentless pace that will push them to their limits.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Survivor 41 S41E12: Truth Kamikaze


‘Survivor’ breaks the streak and heads into the final five.
by Jeremy Fogelman

As we recount the tied votes and consider surprise votes, we ask the question: Why did Danny get voted out?

If we start to look back from where things went, we can see the strategy among the Erika/Heather/Ricard/Xander majority alliance fairly simply. They split the votes between Deshawn and Danny in case either has an idol, concerned about threats from either one. Danny was an immunity threat having actually won one while Deshawn was otherwise a strategic and lesser physical threat, having done decently at the most recent reward challenge.

But Danny actually going out and looking for an idol ironically put more of a target on him, because it demonstrates that he’s thinking about his game. Although Deshawn has become a new fun presence the last few episodes, and this episode continues that trend with Deshawn insisting that he doesn’t need food but needles Jeff Probst for his letters from home (we know that loved ones can’t be there this season dude to COVID restrictions).

I’m still pondering a bit on that vote -- but perhaps part of it was Deshawn and his “truth kamikaze” problem, although it didn’t get him the vote out. Of course, naturally Ricard was the main target first, but after he won his third immunity idol, that wasn’t an option. But when we think about the final people, who has a chance to win?

Going alphabetically, Deshawn has played a complicated game, playing both well and poorly at times, but I think people mostly respect him -- hard to know if Shan has forgiven him though. I think he has a decent chance to win against most people. Erika has played another mixed game, but I feel that she might be respected even less than Deshawn as a good player -- but maybe she could win in a final three with Xander and Heather.


Speaking of whom, Heather cannot win, she is the goat brought to the end, apologies to who seems like a nice person (her conversation with Deshawn this episode certainly seemed thoughtful). Ricard is considered such a threat to win that that concept has dominated most conversations we see -- it’s hard to see anyone beating him. Finally, Xander still has an idol and has certainly done strategic movies, but he’s never really led anything significant nor is he particularly respected by the other players -- I think he doesn’t have a great chance.

If it does come down to Erika/Heather/Xander, what I’d like to see is Erika being a way to justify a win past “I got out the bigger threats”, although I loved her little “I want to see woman win, ideally me” comment. I suppose I also feel a little bad for Heather who isn’t really an interesting character or a good player, or usually you get at least one of those by the final five. Especially because otherwise this is just a great, entertaining, supremely messy cast that has been engaging the entire season.

Of course, there’s still more twists to come this season so I’m hoping nothing goes too wrong with that, but it’s shaping up to be quite the delightful season, isn’t it? And despite the pain at losing Danny, it was still an entertaining and meaningful episode.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Survivor 41 S41E11: Do or Die


'Survivor’ offers a pointless twist and an engaging tribal council in an episode that mostly works.
by Jeremy Fogelman

On the latest Survivor episode “Do or Die”, named for its pointless twist, we consider the question: Why did Liana get voted off? Poor Liana was quite the character this season, playing hard from minute one with a combination of emotion and clarity, with a serious animosity towards Xander throughout. Ah, why does it always have to be the best moment before your vote out?

At the final tribal, after Deshawn gave a teary explanation of his vote against Shan, Liana gave a legit “for the culture” speech breaking down her perspective as a Black woman in the current climate outside and inside the game. A really great moment for her, even if it was her last -- but at least it was quite an effective, strong one. Sure, it’s no “hero music for the exit of Shan the Great” like last episode, but it was a good sign off for Liana.

Liana was very tight to Shan, but that was ultimately her downfall, as she was clearly not trusted enough by her other allies Danny and Deshawn enough to tell her last week’s plan. Which they could’ve, despite their attempts at saying they had no choice in the matter because of the “majority” against Shan. Makes no sense, because it was four against four!

So we did get Deshawn profusely telling Liana he’d never write down her name, and maybe because of his clear emotional reaction to voting out Shan he actually meant it. Danny is a trickier dude to read in that way, playing the more subtle game -- but he actually got a pretty great episode otherwise, as we got his emotional backstory and then he won immunity.

Otherwise, it came down to Erika as a swing vote and Xander with his extra vote that made it obvious. Erika clearly picked the “allies I can trust for now” over “Ricard is the big threat” from her choices, which is a debatable one for sure, but maybe the right one. Although Ricard is certainly a threat, who isn’t? Only Heather, really. As for Xander, he and Liana have been at odds for quite a while, so it does make sense to target her as that probably wouldn’t have changed any time soon.

So Liana was in the minority because of her “duo” alliance and a target because the “bigger threat” Deshawn was twisted into being safe while Danny won immunity. So among the smaller alliance, really she was the only option.


As for the rest of the episode, I can’t say I was really such a fan of the twist that didn’t go anywhere. Deshawn ultimately got a chance to play (what Xander correctly identified) as a variant on the 'Monty Hall problem', but such randomness feels like an unfair twist -- even if Deshawn actually was safe likely because of this twist.

But otherwise I still like this cast, and even Heather gets one or two lines an episode that aren’t pointless. At this point I’m mixed on who I think is playing the best game, but it’s part of the whole “playing well makes you a target” issue with modern Survivor. Sort of a double edged sword when you sometimes get the most “average good” player winning the season. Still, it’s also a great jury so far too!

Next time on Survivor, Danny hopes to find an idol, Ricard is scared, Erika has new plans, and all Deshawn can do is fight.