L to R: Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso and William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence
Cobra Kai (Season Three)
Jan 01, 2021
Photography by Curtis Bonds Baker/Netflix Web Exclusive
There is something very clear-cut and satisfactory about an ’80s teen drama. The popular and unpopular divide is defined, generally delineated by each character’s cash flow. There is a good side and a bad side, where the former is always in the right and the latter is always, unequivocally, in the wrong. This was certainly the case with the original The Karate Kid trilogy, which started in 1984 and ended in 1989.
Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) was the poor, undersized underdog with a zen sensei in the revered and beloved Mr. “wax on, wax off” Miyagi (the late Pat Morita). Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) was the wealthy, uber-blond troublemaker with the ruthless sensei, John Kreese (played by Martin Kove).
Over 30 years later, The Karate Kid spin-off, Cobra Kai, turns all of the above on its head. Originally a YouTube Red production which premiered in 2018, Netflix snatched up the already-shot, first three seasons. In June 2020, seasons one and two began airing simultaneously on Netflix. The series has occupied a spot on the streaming giant’s top 10 since then. Ending on a hectic cliffhanger with a “karate riot,” Cobra Kai fans will get some resolution with Season Three’s 10 episodes.
Cleverly written and well-cast with all the original actors, plus some excellent new characters, Cobra Kai flips the script—pun intended. Everything about the original The Karate Kid is reversed. The grizzled Johnny—whose blond is now more dishwater than platinum—is a perpetually down-on-his-luck, jack-of-no-trades who lives in a rundown apartment, drinks too many Coors Banquets, and has no awareness of the 21st century. He lives as if it still is the ’80s with shocking but entirely unaware political incorrectness, case in point, “hash brown me too.” Johnny’s straightforward attitude and his general “don’t care” cluelessness about all modern things brings a side-splitting amount of humor to Cobra Kai. “I’m not checking in. I’m no quitter,” he says when he stops by a rehab center. There is a lot to appreciate about the unlikely villain-turned-hero no-nonsense attitude—even if sometimes that shows itself with him smacking teenagers around.
In contrast, Daniel is now an affluent auto magnate with multiple dealerships and a trophy wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler), whose brains and sass match her looks, not to mention her firm handle on comedic timing and delivery. Daniel lives in an elaborate hacienda-style compound with his family, including his karate-trained daughter, Sam (Mary Mouser), and his minimal screen time son, Anthony. He’s primarily retired from karate, other than using it as a sales schtick to shift cars. The bonsai-trimming Daniel has been replaced by a clichéd smarmy car salesman.
In a quick recap, Johnny’s opens his own Cobra Kai dojo after his neighbor kid, Miguel (the effortlessly natural Xolo Maridueña) gets mercilessly bullied. A collection of nerds and misfits join the dojo, which turns them all into mini-Johnnys at his worst. As horrifying aggressive as they are, there is an honesty to their brutality, the result of years of being stepped on and ignored. In response, Daniel starts Miyagi-do, which feels more like a spa retreat than a space for martial arts. His main student, besides his daughter, is Johnny’s borderline estranged son, Robbie (Tanner Buchanan). Kreese returns, steals Cobra Kai away from Johnny, turning his students feral. The kids from the two dojos karate the krap out of each other at school and Miguel ends up in a coma.
Season Three continues with a similar ethos to the first two seasons. Any plotline, no matter how predictable it seems on the surface, has multiple layers. And no matter how stereotypical a character, there is much more than meets the eye. Back stories that didn’t exist at the time of The Karate Kid are revealed. These go a long way in explaining why the characters are how they are. Johnny’s abusive step-father (the stellar Edward Asner) who used his wealth as a weapon. Kreese’s scarring experiences during the Vietnam War—shot beautifully and effectively—reveal the roots of his cold-bloodedness. Plus, what did Mr. Miyagi leave behind in Japan?
Daniel returns to Japan, specifically, Okinawa. The traditional village has given over to Western retail and restaurant chains: Red Lobster, Gap, Forever 21, “we used to have a Subway, but now we have a Jersey Mike’s!” He reunites with Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto). Seeing these classic characters is a treat—especially when Chozen teaches Daniel a sick secret move to disable your opponent, which comes in handy later. These two aren’t the only old friends that show up in Season Three. Don’t forget that Johnny discovered this thing called Facebook—before his laptop “broke” when its battery ran out, “you said this was wireless!”—where he found another friend from high school.
Cobra Kai is cross-generational in its appeal, both as a comedy and as a drama, plus the non-stop, one-shot karate doesn’t hurt. Note to viewers: do NOT try and recover from a paralyzing fall the way Johnny pushes Miguel—not only is it hugely dangerous, but it is the only highly unrealistic aspect of Cobra Kai. At half-hour each, Cobra Kai is an easy binge that will only make you want more. Netflix is aware of this and has already confirmed Season Four is in the works. (www.netflix.com/cobrakai)
Author rating: 8/10