It’s no secret around here that we were big fans of Cobra Kai when it was streamed on YouTube Red, starting a couple of years ago. A refreshing show in that it embraced it’s past, respectfully and reverently, instead of doing what a lot of shows do these days. Act as if they are embarrassed of their own legacy.
When it moved to Netflix in time for Season 3 we were pleased that the show had a chance to reach the kind of audience we felt it deserved. However there was always one thing nagging at the back of our minds. As it came out of nowhere and took us by surprise first time around, was it really as good as we thought? Or did our memories play a trick on us. Did our nostalgia glands apply some rose tinted hindsight deep in our minds? Is Cobra Kai as good as we remembered?
With a very large drink and the kids safely tucked up in bed, we fired up Netflix and binge watched while getting slowly drunk. So we can confirm after this painstaking research – YES! It really is as good as we remembered.
Effortless, is the word that springs to mind. It makes the nostalgia seem effortless. With a blend of flashbacks and callbacks, a dropped line here and a prop in the background there, it perfectly leans back on it’s own past while convincingly bringing the characters into the present day. Once it’s got them there, it actually gives them useful things to do.
When Cobra Kai was first floated the scuttlebutt on the internet was that it was going to be Johhny Lawrence’s story and Daniel LaRusso was going to the bad guy. It was also going to be a comedy. Well, it is very funny in places, and Lawrence is a sympathetic character (somewhat) this time around. But thank God they didn’t go down that cheap and lazy route. It’s far more nuanced than that.
Sure, when we first meet Lawrence we root for him, and Daniel is kind of annoying, but both characters (gasp) change and grow, separately and because of each other. Writers of today, take note. This is one of those mythical things called an “Arc” – you should look it up and learn all about it.
Over the course of the show Daniel develops as he finds his centre again. Johnny, with his total lack of subtleness or empathy, at times starts to sometimes resemble his old Sensei Kreese, who looms like a shadow over the fledgling dojo.
Johnny and Daniel play off each other as circumstances bring them repeatedly into each others orbits after all these years. Daniel is rich, successful and happy. Johnny, not so much. And guess what event in his life Johnny pinpoints as the moment where it all started to go wrong for him?
The show leans into the How I Met Your Mother joke about Johnny being the good guy and Daniel being the bad guy – from Johnny’s point of view – and doesn’t make it groan inducing. Instead it actually gives you, the viewer, a moments pause.
Similarly it doesn’t run from the increasingly weak sequels and instead bakes those into the mythology. Daniel is two time All Valley Karate Champion, Terry Silva and Mike Barnes are the reason Cobra Kai are banned from the All Valley tournament even all these years later. Daniel’s business success is directly linked to his automotive love, and even Mr Miyagi’s Little Trees gets a shout out as an early entrepreneurial venture. It even gives a line to explain why the All Valley Tournament is such a big deal in that area.
William Zabka was largely in straight-to-video fare for a while after The Karate Kid so the fact he nails Johnny Lawrence again with an unbelievably strong performance is staggering. Full of pathos, frustration and regret which then gives a 180 turn into demonstrating great comic timing. He can still kick-ass too. Also shows what we know. The guy was nominated for an Academy Award as co-writer and producer of the short film Most in 2004.
Ralph Macchio has kept his uncannily youthful looks and plays Daniel perfectly here. He too grows as a character as we see his seemingly perfect life is missing something at it’s core. He’s emotionally lost without the guidance of his sensei Mr Miyagi in his life. Having let his karate lapse – with a home dojo full of old toys and garden furniture – he is lacking balance in his life and he is struggling with parenthood.
The scenes with Johnny and Daniel together are some of the best. So many times they seem on the verge of an adult reconciliation before a stupid comment, or a chance event, sends them spinning into animosity and conflict again. Several times you are rooting for them to shake hands and let bygones be bygones as you know they could, should be friends. However destiny, and the needs of the script, have other ideas.
Is it 100% perfect? No. It’s pretty close, but whenever either Daniel or Johnny aren’t on the screen you do wish the show would return to them as soon as possible. The kids are actually fine. They are a strong bunch, Miguel Diaz (Johnny’s accidental protege) is particularly good for a young actor. They are all pretty convincing and not annoying. However whenever they take center stage it does feel in danger, as one Outposter put it, of becoming Saved By The Bell: The Karate Years.
However the saving grace here is that the kids provide some of the central emotional challenges to Johnny and Daniel, and are also the butt of the recurring joke that Johnny simply cannot believe what weak and spineless pussies today’s youth have been turned into with their therapists, their counselling and their safe spaces.
Macchio and Zabka are clearly having the time of their lives reprising these roles together after so many years and it’s infectious. The fact the makers of the show clearly love the source material also shines through.
The re-watch didn’t drag. The 30 minute format with each episode ending on something of a cliff-hanger means you are reaching for the remote to cue up the next episode as soon as those credits roll. It was just as enjoyable second time around and given how Season 2 ended, then we can’t wait for Season 3. Now it’s on a mainstream service you need to get out there and support it so Netflix make more of it.
They don’t make spin-off shows like this anymore, and they really, really should.
Season 1 & 2 streaming now on Netflix. Season 3 coming in 2021.