Bill & Ted, Cobra Kai Are the Right Kind of Nostalgia

“BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER”
– William S. Preston, Esq.

Nostalgia’s a funny thing. The comfortable delusion, that dreamy recall we all know and love can be a blessing and a curse in equal measure. It’s a warm blanket, capable of calming us of our trying and our crying, as well as an especially potent set of blinders, capable of rendering a wicked arrested development. Nostalgia can elicit the worst of us, an inability to evolve as a culture or society beyond what our hazy childhood hath wrought. Memory fades and with it the trials and stressors of youth, or middle age, depending on your current age. We only remember the good times, the markers of a simpler time. Hollywood is particularly adept at exploiting nostalgia for ill or good will, from franchises that never end (Star Wars, Batman) to franchises that are resuscitated from the annals of film history.

The weekend of August 29 represented a positive form of the latter, of such cheeky delusions, with Karate Kid spinoff series Cobra Kai debuting on Netflix (after kicking off YouTube’s now defunct YouTube Red) and long-awaited threequel Bill & Ted Face the Music releasing concurrently in theaters and video-on-demand. They’re both surprisingly poignant and somehow able to cast a spell and tone in keeping with their 80’s brethren. They’re properly nostalgic whilst updating for the present, a balance notoriously difficult to pull off when rebooting a thirty year-old brand. While I’ve only laid eyes on five episodes of Netflix’s newly acquired cultural touchstone, I can safely say Cobra Kai is one of the better series to come along in the last five years, next to Euphoria, Mindhunter, Sex Education, and HBO’s Watchmen. No matter the smaller scale, famous IP, and slighter production value, Cobra Kai belongs in that group of highly-respected shows.

Picking up decades after the original trilogy, Cobra Kai finds former bully Johnny Lawrence a middle-aged repairman down on his luck, drinking too much, and seemingly stuck in the 80’s while he sips Coors in front of an old box television. He’s still an asshole, but now a likable asshole, willing to defend a scrawny teenager from intimidating punks in a convenience store parking lot. He’s still got the karate moves, and with them, an inevitable heart of gold beneath his rough exterior. Meanwhile, rival Danny LeRusso is a family man and successful owner of a brand of car dealerships in the Valley. He’s a well-meaning if overbearing father and, despite remembering his old sensei with a genteel fondness, has apparently lost his way without him. Though he was the object of bullying and intimidation from the likes of Johnny back in the day, Danny was always a hothead himself. To some extent, that hasn’t changed, especially now that he has money and neighborhood renown to his name. Somehow Ralph Macchio and Billy Zapka haven’t lost a step, and in the case of the latter have actually improved as an actor. They inhabit these characters like they know them in their bones.

The show is a fascinating follow-up, allowing us to see what’s changed and what hasn’t for two karate masters with axes to grind. However, it’s not all about old men revisiting their glory days. It’s also about the younger generation of men and women who are in need of a proper ass-kicking training regimen. Because let’s be honest, no matter the many humble teachings of Mr. Miyagi, the Karate Kid franchise has always been about giving school-age bullies their richly-deserved comeuppance. Johnny opens a new dojo in one attempt to reclaim his own life, and under his gruff tutelage is a young man trying to do the same. It’s still enjoyable all these years later watching a wimp grow into a warrior, and Miguel and his friends are good successors to the Dannys and Johnnys of the world. At the close of episode five, it’s apparent Johnny’s own son and Danny’s daughter will factor into the larger story beyond mere school-set subplots. I cringe at the thought of their biological children pulling focus as some sort of predictable passing of the torch, but for now I’ll give these writers the benefit of the doubt. Up until now, Cobra Kai has been well-written in spite of its cliches.

Bill & Ted Face the Music succeeds precisely because it sticks to the script, what it knows, an embrace of what makes this franchise so unique: a goofy, effervescent charm that flits between satire and a serious appreciation for good-natured comedy. This is no cynical reboot or re-imagining of the Bill & Ted mythos, this is a proper reunion with two characters whose dumbassery is sweet instead of salty, soothing instead of souring. Bill & Ted were always different from the rest of dude-bro comedy. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are genuinely good, friendly people and that always came through in their performances. They weren’t very crass or all too irritating. They were a distillation of the easy-going pothead culture that came of age in the 80’s in southern California, that cherished rock n’ roll and surfer aphorisms. Their motto “be excellent to each other” was a call to arms against those who thought being cool meant being mean, a suddenly relevant message again three decades later. Middle-aged and still struggling as musicians, Bill & Ted discover their previous jaunts through time didn’t save the world like they thought and now the fate of reality itself depends on their future success. Bill & Ted remain all of those things and more in 2020, as Face the Music is a funny and thoroughly enjoyable addition to this once-dormant franchise.

As expected, it’s all very silly and chintzy, with more than a little borrowed plot-wise from Terminator. There’s even an adorable robot assassin, albeit one who suffers a nervous breakdown and decides he will no longer maim or kill. Visual effects are both much improved from the 80’s artifacts and also sparkling with colorful pizzazz, capturing a very particular, very campy aura that is totally “80’s music video aesthetic.” Like Cobra Kai, Face the Music hinges on the younger generation, with Bill & Ted’s respective daughters forming their own duo with an awe-dude attitude. Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy nearly steal the movie, re-purposing the Bill & Ted ethos for the millennial era. They’re key to the story without representing some obvious “passing of the torch,” as if setting up a spinoff that’ll never happen. William Sadler is a welcome face, returning as guitar-loving Death, one-time ruler of Hell now demoted thanks to his soft spot for musical dudes. If you have a soft spot for such and need a good pick-me-up (don’t we all right now?), you’ll enjoy the continuing adventures of two guys in search of love, Death, and rock n’ roll. The fate of reality and time depends on them.

Grade for Cobra Kai Season 1 (so far): A-

Grade for Bill & Ted Face the Music: B

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