Between the plethora of streaming services and conventional cable options, people are being inundated with a little too much TV. That’s been true for years now. But it became especially evident in 2020, as pandemic-induced production delays gave viewers a rare opportunity to finally catch up on shows that had been idling in their queues. Because of this recent fire hose-level of television, it’s become a lot easier for series to slip through the cracks—even ones adapted from familiar IP.
For a while, it appeared that YouTube’s TV sequel to The Karate Kid would fall into that trap, because, well, a TV sequel to The Karate Kid is a ridiculous idea to begin with. Set more than 30 years after the events of the first movie, Cobra Kai flipped the script by turning former high school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) into its main protagonist. The intervening years haven’t been kind to Johnny—he’s an absentee father, appears to subsist entirely off Coors Banquet, and somehow looks like he’s been going through a midlife crisis for most of his life—but he finds a chance at redemption by opening up a karate dojo for a new generation of outcast teens. Meanwhile, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) is still hanging around the Valley, and while he embraces the late Mr. Miyagi’s virtues, he’s kind of a smug asshole about always doing the right thing. (Daniel’s also co-opted the whole “Karate Kid” schtick to serve his successful car dealership by “kicking the competition” and giving customers bonsai trees; upon hearing that Johnny is reopening Cobra Kai, he starts up Miyagi-Do.)
The baseline expectations for Cobra Kai’s first season, released in 2018, were about as low as it gets. But credit where it’s due: The series cleverly packaged its Karate Kid nostalgia to examine toxic masculinity, how youthful indiscretions can linger in someone’s life for decades, and, if you can believe it, generational culture wars. (Yes boomers, deadass!) Plus, Cobra Kai doesn’t skimp on the ’80s needle drops, kickass training montages, well-choreographed karate sequences, and cheesy one-liners that were essential to the franchise, either.
But between its 2018 debut and last summer, Cobra Kai was barely a blip on the pop culture radar. That is, until the series found a new streaming dojo: Netflix. The show made the move from YouTube—yes, YouTube was trying to compete in the scripted programming game; it went about as well as Quibi—to Netflix in August and benefited from the very tangible Netflix Bump that has helped pad the numbers for series as disparate as Breaking Bad, The Good Place, Riverdale, and You. Cobra Kai quickly became the platform’s no. 1 show over the summer, and considering the second season quietly premiered on YouTube’s paid subscription service in the middle of the great Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones Season 8 content avalanche of 2019, that rise is the kind of underdog story befitting the plucky franchise. It’s taken a couple of years, but Cobra Kai finally seems to have the right place to show off its moves. And with the third season’s release on Netflix the weekend after New Year’s, the new partnership is off to a great start.
Season 3 picks things up in the aftermath of the chaotic West Valley High School brawl between Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do pupils—an incident shocking enough to warrant local news reports with incredible chyrons that say “Violent Karate Clash.” As silly as karate-centric theatrics sound, though, the ramifications are quite serious. Johnny’s mentee, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), is laying comatose in the hospital and may never walk again, having been kicked off a two-story balcony by [gasp] Johnny’s estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan); Robby has been expelled and is heading to juvenile detention; Daniel’s daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), has PTSD and physical scars from her involvement in the violent melee; Johnny has his dojo and students stolen from under him by his former sensei, John Kreese (a cartoonishly evil Martin Kove); and Daniel’s car dealership is in financial straits because of Miyagi-Do’s association with what went down at the school. Sounds … fun?
While it’s admirable that Cobra Kai wants to treat the aftereffects of the West Valley fight with gravitas—actions have consequences, etc.—the series has excelled up to this point because it understood that a soapy melodrama centered around two adults still obsessed with a karate tournament that happened more than 30 years ago is patently absurd. Cobra Kai must strike a Zen balance between the self-awareness that you’re watching a show in which a Los Angeles community lives and breathes [checks notes] karate while providing enough emotional stakes that you’re invested in the characters; perhaps sending angsty teens to the ICU and juvie is a step too far. And that’s before we get into several disturbing Vietnam War flashbacks that serve to underline why John Kreese acts like he does. Kove is clearly having a blast hamming it up as Kreese, who believes—and I’m really not kidding—that political correctness is society’s new enemy. (I’m calling it now: an “In Praise of John Kreese, the Sensible Sensei’’ editorial from The Federalist.)
But the early issues of Season 3 won’t matter much if viewers embrace the binge. The great (ongoing, never-ending?) debate about whether series are better served by dropping full seasons at once or delivering episodes weekly may be best evaluated on a show-to-show basis—and in the case of Cobra Kai, bingeing through comparatively dour first half of the new season means arriving at the satisfying payoffs quicker. That includes a thoughtful detour to Okinawa, Japan, where Daniel reunites with friends and foe from The Karate Kid: Part II, offering more evidence that Cobra Kai is somehow as self-referential as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Unfortunately, if you wanted a Karate Kid refresher, the only film from the franchise on Netflix is the universally derided The Next Karate Kid, and I somehow doubt that Oscar winner Hilary Swank is itching to make a comeback.) And so long as you can suspend your disbelief that almost all the violent showdowns avoid legal consequences, the karate choreography is as impressive as ever.
It might be a stretch to consider a half-hour dramedy about karate a bold creative undertaking, but it’s hard to overstate how terrible a small-screen continuation of a decades-old franchise centered on a fairly one-dimensional villain who got a crane kick to the face sounds on paper. The feeling of watching Cobra Kai is not unlike the Ted Lasso experience: once you get over the shock that this ill-advised concept actually works, you can appreciate just how damn good the show is. And much like Ted Lasso, the key lies in the sincerity of the show’s lead performance subverting expectations.
Typecast as a bully in his post–Karate Kid films—like Back to School and Just One of the Guys—Billy Zabka is a legitimate revelation in Cobra Kai. He pulls Johnny Lawrence out of the pit of ’80s jock stereotypes and becomes a surprisingly nuanced antihero. Johnny’s vernacular and attitudes might be stuck in another decade—he says he’s never owned a computer because he’s “not a nerd”—but his transformation in the series can be summed up in the hilariously blunt philosophy he wants to impart on his pupils this season: “Being a badass doesn’t mean being an asshole.”
It’s simple and to the point, and so is the appeal of Cobra Kai. The series won’t break the wheel—the students prefer to break wood, anyway—but in an era of pop culture replete with derivative sequels, reboots, and remakes, there’s a lot to admire about a show that knows how to pull original elements out of a preexisting franchise and steer them in purposeful new directions. Now with Netflix’s backing, the series has already been renewed for a fourth season, ensuring at least another year of hyper-specific karate-centric feuds in the greater Los Angeles area. “I thought karate died out in the ’80s,” a local man says on the news. It probably should’ve, but against all odds, Cobra Kai is a knockout.