One of the most zeitgeist-grabbing shows of 2018 is [squints] a follow-up to 1984’s The Karate Kid streaming on [squints aggressively enough to burst a blood vessel] YouTube Red. This may sound like an unconvincing game of Mad Libs, but Cobra Kai is a real thing, and it’s wonderful. The 10-episode first season is knowingly cheesy—you bet your ass there’s a “wax on, wax off” reference in there—as it revisits Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso, now in their mid-40s and yearning to relive the glory days of their adolescence. It’s a surprisingly poignant premise that just might be a meta-commentary on Hollywood’s propensity to mine nostalgia; if not, it’s still a lot of fun.
But the most shocking part of Cobra Kai might be where it landed—“YouTube Red original series” is not a phrase you hear often, particularly when it comes to buzzy, critically acclaimed shows. The paid subscription service of YouTube doesn’t have the clout of Netflix or Hulu; even Wikipedia assumes that when you searched “YouTube Red,” you might have been looking for a similarly named porn site. But the service is fast becoming another player in the streaming wars—according to YouTube global content chief Susanne Daniels, the goal is to have 30 pieces of original programming by the end of the year. And sure, that might not come anywhere near Netflix’s purported 2018 output of 700, but it’s a start. The success of Cobra Kai could be a building block, equivalent to how House of Cards put Netflix on the map.
Here’s the thing: If you want to check out Cobra Kai, the first two episodes can currently be viewed for free, but the rest will require a YouTube Red subscription. And that means, at the very least, signing up for a one-month free trial. After a binge of Cobra Kai, you might just cancel the subscription. But you also might forget to, and start paying the $9.99-per-month fee out of pure laziness. Or you might decide that maybe the rest of YouTube Red is worth checking out. I can help if you fall into those last two hypotheticals. After poring through hours of myriad YouTube Red originals—which had a pleasantly high ratio of very good animals and an unfortunate overreliance on YouTube stars like Logan Paul and Tyler Oakley—here’s my advice on how to maximize your YouTube Red experience post–Cobra Kai.
Embrace Your Inner Rhythm With Step Up: High Water
The Step Up franchise is five (!!) movies deep—if I’m being honest, I lost interest after Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan broke up, and now blame the franchise for their tragic separation—but it might’ve finally found the proper medium on the small screen. The redundancy of the Step Up movies became apparent after Step Up 3D (which I saw on a very bad first date): The film’s story lines are there to set up extravagant dance set pieces and do not give a modicum of effort to developing characters. There’s no reason to ever revisit these movies because they have no lasting emotional power and you can get the (admittedly stellar) kinetic thrills of the dance sequences by watching clips on … YouTube.
But the YouTube Red series Step Up: High Water, with 10 episodes that range from 40 minutes to about an hour, has ample room to breathe and prioritize its storytelling—while, yes, still staging flashy dance routines. Set in Atlanta, High Water follows twins Tal and Janelle, who move in with their uncle after their mother is arrested following a drug addiction relapse. The twins hope to continue their dancing dreams at the prestigious “High Water” performing arts school, which is funded by Ne-Yo (technically he plays a fictitious rapper, but it’s easier to just call him Ne-Yo) and run by a headmaster played by Naya Rivera. No, seriously: Naya freaking Rivera.
There is a surprising amount of depth to the supporting cast, and the dance environment breeds not only kinship and romantic entanglements, but the kind of petty, dramatic feuds that only high schoolers can embody. The best thing I can say about High Water is that it’d feel right at home on the CW. It’s not prestige TV, but it’s surprisingly worthy of your time if you have YouTube Red, and it’s appointment bingeing for dance fanatics.
Everyone’s Favorite Jackass Climbs a Mountain in Ultimate Expedition
My favorite part of celebrity-edition reality series is seeing how very random famous people interact with one another. The nine contestants of Ultimate Expedition are an eclectic group that includes former MMA fighter Chuck Liddell, Olympian Gus Kenworthy, Jackass legend Steve-O, and a gamer who goes by the name SssniperWolf. Their goal: climb to the summit of Peru’s Mount Tocllaraju, which is nearly 20,000 feet above sea level.
It’s a daunting task that’s met with trepidation and sincere contemplation from most of the participants—and then there’s Steve-O, who introduces himself by saying “I’m known for doing dumb stuff, like putting things up my butt” (fact check: true), drinks Peruvian toilet water out of a coffee mug, and asks Chuck Liddell to put him in a stranglehold. No lie, Steve-O’s antics—which, alongside more straight-laced participants, seem like a recipe for disaster—provided the purest moments of joy during my YouTube Red binge, and possibly all of my television consumption this year.
When the group spends a day in the Peruvian town of Huaraz to get acclimated to the higher altitude before taking on lengthy hikes, Steve-O purchases a couple of bags of dog food—along with his new pal Gus Kenworthy!—and tries to feed some street dogs, because he loves dogs. One dog takes a special liking to him; he names her Wendy and gets her cleaned up at the vet. Since dogs aren’t allowed at their hotel, he pitches a tent outside to snuggle with her. He also TAKES WENDY ON THE HIKES.
Wendy is the MVP of Ultimate Expedition, which itself is a compelling reality series that feels genuinely precarious for the contestants. Steve-O and Wendy’s bond just happens to be its very fuzzy center.
Did Steve-O make me tear up a bit? Possibly, but don’t tell anyone.
Get Extremely Meta With Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*
The full title for this series is Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television* Even Though You’re Probably Watching This on Your Phone and That’s Cool Too, which tells you all you need to know about the show’s sense of humor. Here is the actor Ryan Hansen (if you know him at all, it’s probably from Party Down), playing a very heightened version of himself and teaming up with an LAPD detective (played by Samira Wiley!) to work on a police procedural for YouTube Red. A show within a show, in other words.
The self-referential humor is the bread and butter of Ryan Hansen: In the pilot, when Hansen describes the service as “like YouTube, only not free,” Wiley’s character retorts, “That sounds like a terrible business model.” Ryan Hansen is too meta for its own good sometimes, and lives in excess—there are four different jokes about YouTube Red sounding a lot like RedTube in the first episode alone, which is three too many. But there are enough wink-wink moments that work, including Hansen’s family hanging on the set of a multicamera sitcom as a “creative compromise” with producers, and playing up the Angry Police Chief trope to its fullest effect.
Ryan Hansen is far from a perfect comedy, but it’s worth a casual binge. If the show itself expects you to passively watch it on your phone, and gives you the thumbs up to do so, it understands its place in the television landscape better than most.
Fall for Felines With Kedi
The finest piece of YouTube Red’s burgeoning documentary game is about street cats. Now look, if you aren’t a cat lover, I can’t stop you from skipping this section, but hear me out: Kedi is brilliant. From filmmaker Ceyda Torun, the doc primarily follows seven street cats in Istanbul, Turkey, which has thousands of cats of many different breeds living in the city, as is to be expected from a major European transit hub. (How do you think snakes got around the world so quickly?)
The cats themselves are full of personality—whether they want some scraps, a little bit of attention, or both—but what makes Kedi more than just a collection of cute animals is how it explores the cats’ ecosystem and the people who foster them. One man, who describes having a nervous breakdown, says taking care of the street cats helped him survive the ordeal; a neat encapsulation of the therapeutic nature of owning a pet.
Kedi is not a grandiose documentary with a world-changing call to action, but it’s a gentle reminder that our companionship and empathy for these little felines can bring out the best in humanity.
Oh, Also? YouTube Red Has a Music Service
Like Amazon Prime offering a bundle of services (i.e. faster shipping) to go along with its streaming platform, signing up for YouTube Red also comes with an ad-free subscription to YouTube Music, a companion app that, yes, streams music. The service itself functions a lot like Spotify Premium: having no ads is a plus, and music videos/audio can be downloaded and listened to without a WiFi connection.
While there isn’t anything revelatory about YouTube Music that’d make it comparatively better than Spotify Premium, its value comes from being a package deal with YouTube Red—there’s no reason to pay for Spotify Premium and YouTube Red if you can get the exact same thing at a lesser overall cost. In other words, if you were to keep a YouTube Red subscription, YouTube Music takes care of all your music streaming needs.
And with the prospect of media consumption turning into a mandatory collection of subscriptions (Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, etc.), any opportunity to lessen the financial burden is worth exploring, and possibly considering in the long term.
The continually crowded TV landscape will feel downright suffocating in the next couple of years. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu will soon be joined by Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston on Apple’s streaming service and Jon Favreau’s live-action Star Wars series for Disney’s own platform. So where does that leave YouTube Red?
Without the name or brand recognition of its peers, the streamer will have a tougher sell—heck, it already has a tough sell, even with a Spotify-esque feature included. To stake a real claim in the streaming wars, YouTube Red’s original content could use more Cobra Kais and High Waters and less YouTube star–led programs. These shows are a good, early foundation, and the key will be following them up with projects that meet their scale and ambition—a spinoff of Hailee Steinfeld’s teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, announced Wednesday, is another promising building block. Ultimately, the success of YouTube Red might mean becoming as distanced from YouTube and its stars as possible. Otherwise, as Samira Wiley said, “That sounds like a terrible business model.”