If you are a TV-loving young adult (or someone who identifies as a ‘young adult’ in spite of not really being one), May was a great month. Three shows set in and around high school/college life released in May, and though, on the surface, they are nothing like each other, it’s amazing how they were all exactly about the same thing.
13 Reasons Why’s much talked-about second season, Dear White People’s extraordinary second season, which should be talked about so much more, and Cobra Kai’s awesome first season, which I haven’t been able to stop talking about, all released in May. The first one is a global phenomenon that took on sexual assault and teen suicide with upsetting drama, the second one is an insanely smart satire about identity politics, and the third a spin off/sequel of the cult classic coming-of-age drama Karate Kid. But in their own way, every one of these shows tackled the most relevant and terrifying social problem of our times: hate and bullying.
In the post-truth, post-Trump era, we have seemingly split the world into an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’, and if you are not living under a rock – or umm, are one – this is painfully visible all over the internet. It’s always been said that all art is political and that’s never been more evident than it is today, because of how creators and showrunners have responded to what’s happening in the world around us.
Hollywood has always identified itself as liberal (and hence, anti-Trump) and inevitably, that bias has seeped into the content that’s being made over the last year or so. There are shows that have completely, utterly taken up the fight against Trump (The Good Fight, Our Cartoon President, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, American Horror Story), there are shows that have channelized the highly politicized environment in most relevant ways (Homeland, Mr Robot, Black-ish, The Handmaid’s Tale), and then there are those that have made that choice to stay clear (most sitcoms and network shows that appease the masses). There’s also the rare show that is actually pro-Trump and is not Fox and Friends (Roseanne) but look what happened to that! (It was cancelled yesterday after its star went on a racist rant on Twitter).
And in this era, it’s been so interesting to see the three sides that the liberal expression represent while tackling teenage through the three very distinct young adult shows. Dear White People takes Trump – and especially his followers – head on. The show’s major storyline has to do with the central character being targeted with online hate and bullying by an alt-right Twitter account that spawns its own following. The series explicitly and brilliantly shows how wide the divide between black and white America has become under Trump’s administration and satirizes it with some of the most nuanced, hard-hitting and emotional commentary we have seen on gender identity in the time of online hate. The show never once mentions Trump, but he’s part of its DNA and casts a huge (huuuuge, like very huge, like Make America Huge Again) shadow to its every scene and moment.
Then, there’s 13 Reasons Why Season 2, that takes on sexual assault on campus, in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It is clearly inspired by the movement and channelizes its energy, showing how toxic masculinity leads to a pattern of sexual harassment that starts very young, and can consequently shatter the lives of those that have to go through it (as the onus of justice depends on them speaking about what they’ve gone through). And yet, the show removes itself from what’s going on around the world and focuses only on that one campus and the people within its story, so it could exist in any time, although it is timely right now.
And then there’s Cobra Kai, that not only has no interest in the politics of the world around it, but actively does what it can to subvert it within its scenes. It’s about the antagonist of the original Karate Kid, who’s growing up from a troubled teenager to a troubled middle-aged man, who thinks the solution to his problems could be starting a karate dojo, where he hilariously teaches sensitive young kids to stand up against bullying by bullying them first.
The show’s funniest moments are when Johnny Lawrence, the protagonist, and the dojo’s sensei destroys the self-confidence of many of his students by subjecting them to the most inappropriate name-calling. If this was 13 Reasons Why, he would have been on the tape of any of these students. But this show really does NOT give a f***. Cobra Kai doesn’t care about Trump or what the world has become under Trump, and instead, just focuses on the simple, age-old fight between good and evil, hate and love, anger and inner peace. And in that, it truly disrupts the politics of the world by showcasing the moderate voice – where the greatest fight each young kid is going through is not fitting into this weird world, but any weird world because the fight is really not against someone but within himself/herself. And this is a fight that has always existed and will always continue to, as long as there are bullies and nerds and labels.
If you are a TV buff, instead of an either/or between these shows, I’d recommend you watch all three to decide the art that feeds your bias, and to understand who you may really be. For me, the choice is clear. As much as I was blown away by the intelligence of Dear White People that made me think, and as much of a guilty pleasure 13 Reasons Why is for making me binge, Cobra Kai is really the show that I love and can’t get over and find truly magnificent and AWESOME because it made me feel. It may not be timely like Dear White People or time-consuming like 13 Reasons Why, but it is something so much more: it is timeless.