YouTube's 'Cobra Kai' represents the best of YouTube Originals — but that may not be enough

"Cobra Kai” turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. But it seems clear that YouTube is never going to compete with the likes of Netflix.
Cobra Kai - Season 2
William Zabka and Ralph Macchio in Season 2 of Cobra Kai.Guy D'Alema / Sony Pictures Television
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Ani Bundel

YouTube debuted “Cobra Kai” this time last year, as part of its ongoing slate of YouTube Premium original series. The original pitch sounded like a one-trick pony of a series. Coming from the creative team that helmed such stoner comedies as “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Harold & Kumar,” the idea of a decades-later sequel to the 1980s “Karate Kid” film franchise felt more like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch than a sellable series of 30-minute installments.

The series, starring Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka), turned out to be far better than it had any right to be. Riding a wave of positive season reviews, its second season arrives this week. But while “Cobra Kai” still represents the best of what YouTube Originals has to offer, it may end up the last YouTube scripted series to garner mainstream attention.

While “Cobra Kai” still represents the best of what YouTube Originals have to offer, it may end up the last YouTube scripted series to garner mainstream attention.

Formerly known as “YouTube Red,” YouTube Premium hasn’t had a lot of luck in the scripted series department. Despite massive pushes last year for shows like “Origin” (a sci-fi horror show starring not one, but two “Harry Potter” alumni), little of the titles would be recognizable to the average viewer. But this is true of many streaming services. Hulu, for example, developed an entire slate of original shows almost no one had heard of until breakout “The Handmaid’s Tale.” On the heels of the success of “Handmaid,” Hulu has become the home for “Marvel’s Runaways,” the Stephen King-inspired “Castle Rock,” and the upcoming “Veronica Mars” revival. In short, a streaming service can turn its fortunes around with a clear hit, and “Cobra Kai” seemed to be the ticket YouTube needed to ride.

Get the think newsletter.

Season two picks up directly where season one left off, with Daniel LaRusso having failed to stop Johnny Lawrence from bringing back the Cobra Kai dojo he once fought against. With Johnny’s protégé, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), as the face of the new generation of antagonists, Daniel rededicates himself to Mr. Miyagi’s teachings, and starts a dojo of his own, training his daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) as well as Johnny’s son Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan).

While the plot may sound like a series of clichés, casting is everything. Macchio and Zabka are firmly committed and have inspired the show’s younger generation of actors as well. Like so many unlikely hits found on broadcast during terrestrial TV’s heyday, it’s less about the set up and all in the delivery.

But whatever you think of “Cobra Kai” as a show, it seems increasingly likely to be the exception that proves the rule — in this case, that YouTube is never going to compete with the likes of Netflix. YouTube is already scaling back its ambitions, three years after launching YouTube Red and barely a year after the rebranding effort to make it YouTube Premium. Shows like “Cobra Kai” originally tucked behind a paywall, started being available for free to anyone who felt like watching them on YouTube starting this year. Moreover, even though YouTube insiders pushed back on reports that the company was stepping back from scripted shows, it has long been unclear what YouTube was — or should — be focusing on. Was it a promoter for controversial content creators like PewDiePie? A creator of original series like “Cobra Kai?” Or simply a platform for the stuff that made YouTube the household site it is today: easily digestible content made by others.

Even though YouTube insiders pushed back on reports that the company was stepping back from scripted shows, it has long been unclear what YouTube was — or should — be focusing on.

It was only February of last year that CEO Susan Wojcicki, when asked about YouTube’s subscription service at CodeCon, responded it “was really a music service.” That seems a strange answer for a company which appeared to be pouring money into original content as part of the streaming wars, and which regularly made news for the horrific vlogs of Logan and Jake Paul.

But Wojcicki’s comments reflect the reality that YouTube, having been around since 2005, is still viewed by the majority of the population as a repository of short-form videos. When a trailer arrives, say for “Game of Thrones” or “Avengers: Endgame,” much of the internet watches it on YouTube. Moreover, the majority of sites embed this kind of content using YouTube’s easily insertable (and just as importantly, non-auto-play) links.

Similarly, when an artist releases new music, from Madonna to Beyoncé, the easiest way for fans to listen for free is still to head to YouTube, where not only can they hear to the song in question, but an algorithm will kick in to create a playlist of similar songs.

The numbers are obvious. “Cobra Kai” may be a critical darling but the first two episodes of season one (still available for free) have 60 million views as of this writing. Compare that to the latest “Avengers: Endgame” full-length trailer, which in the space of a month has topped 93 million, or Beyoncé’s “Apes**t” single she released with Jay-Z last June, which literally turned over from 167 million to 168 million views while I was typing this sentence. Logan Paul may make headlines, but his videos don’t even begin to compete in this arena, with most logging in the single digit millions.

With Apple+, Disney+, Warner Brothers and NBC all jumping into the streaming service game this year, YouTube may keep making a few high-end TV shows for the fun of it — and the buzz. But it’s just not going to be able to keep up with the big boys in this arena — nor do the profit margins make trying to compete seem worth it. Even the idealistic Mr. Miyagi would appreciate such clarity.