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The first season of YouTube’s Cobra Kai premiered with a concept so seemingly silly and unnecessary — What if Johnny Lawrence suddenly experienced a spiritual rebirth 30 years after the events of The Karate Kid? — that when Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald’s series turned out to have actual substance beyond its nostalgic trappings, the leap from “guilty pleasure” to “revelation” happened in record time. Cobra Kai transitioned from underdog to favorite in the course of 10 half-hour episodes.
If the second season of Cobra Kai, premiering April 24, had been our introduction to this updated world, I’m certain I would have found it an unexpected pleasure and deemed it far better than expectations. That these new 10 episodes basically could have been a first season is perhaps Cobra Kai‘s biggest problem. Season two is content to repeat many, or even most, of the beats from the first season, only without the freshness and genre-upending sense of surprise. The second season of Cobra Kai is too much of the same made with the expectation that the series can be an underdog forever, when any fan of the underdog sports genre knows that underdogs don’t stay underdogs forever and it’s a lot harder to love the favorite who still insists they’re an underdog.
Air date: Apr 24, 2019
Without saying that the first Karate Kid sequel was a good movie, because it’s not, it was very smart in recognizing that it needed to be a completely different movie from the first. In lieu of journeying to Okinawa and directly addressing the cultural appropriation of the first chapter of the story and adding necessary nuance to the franchise’s key characters, the second season of Cobra Kai substitutes…summer vacation. Building to an eventful opening day of school, the second Cobra Kai season focuses on the hot months during which its juvenile heroes have nothing to do but train, repeat martial arts jargon and stoke the exact same burgeoning rivalry between dojos, rendering them monomaniacal and generally much less interesting.
These 10 additional episodes did nothing to build my affection for Xolo Maridueña’s Miguel, newly minted karate champion, Mary Mouser’s eternally winsome Samantha LaRusso or Tanner Buchanan’s Robby Keene, who finds himself living with the LaRussos and losing whatever rough edges made him interesting in the first season. Miguel vanishes for long stretches and the focus on Sam and Robby is mostly to build an inert and predictable love triangle and the show suffers from failing to give its key younger characters any room to grow.
Peyton List — the Disney Channel veteran, not the older version familiar from Mad Men and various CW shows — joins the cast as blue-collar bad girl Tory and proves to be one of the season’s only interesting additions, though additional screen time benefits Jacob Bertrand’s nerd-turned-bully Hawk and pushes Gianni Decenzo’s Demetri from slightly amusing comic foil to slightly annoying comic main character. At this point it’s ridiculous how many of the dojo kids barely have names and how many seemingly regular characters remain afterthoughts. Like Courtney Henggeler, as Daniel LaRusso’s wife, Amanda, had one line this season that made me laugh so hard it made me angry about how wasted she is the rest of the time.
The heart of the show is still William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence and Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso, but the season’s forcing and reforcing the former rivals into another clash is sometimes a bore, even if I liked how their dynamic progressed as the season went along. The show’s first season did so well with inverting Johnny and Daniel’s relationship from the film that it’s disappointing how quickly we revert to the established roles of Daniel and Miyagi-Do representing a spiritual, reactive, underestimated version of karate in contrast to the aggression and anger epitomized by Cobra Kai, one dojo helping its plucky students to become better men (and women), the other fueling toxic masculinity to a dangerous extreme. Any thought we’d outgrown that reductive binary is erased with the increased presence of Martin Kove’s John Kreese, a character designed to function best as a glowering background adversary and not as a prominent figure.
At least Kreese’s hammy, metaphorical mustache twirling gives Johnny more room to embody an outmoded caveman manliness and still aspire to growth, since Zabka remains my favorite part of Cobra Kai. He’s not a deep character and any time he’s pulled away from the main narrative — for a tonally clumsy road trip to Big Bear or a farcical dalliance in online dating — it exposes the show’s limitations. I might have wanted Cobra Kai to open itself up a bit more in the second season, but I’m pretty sure a Karate Kid II-esque detour to Okinawa would have been a bad idea.
The overuse of Kreese also points to a decline in the show’s confidence playing around in the shades of character gray that propelled the first season. By the time we reached the finale, which I have to admit featured the series’ best (and most ridiculous) action to date, I was pretty sure my rooting interest was almost completely against the characters the show wanted me to be sympathetic toward and I was annoyed that the characters the show was treating as antagonists were being given less narrative support than the alleged protagonists. You, a bigger Cobra Kai apologist, may feel this reflects on a growing pragmatism on the part of the show. I kept thinking of all of the backstory-based questions I kept wanting explored that the show kept having no interest in.
Cobra Kai makes some small gestures in the direction of maturity this season. The overall tone is less silly and gag-driven, as if the writers realized that they don’t need to be embarrassed by the show’s premise anymore. It also feels like there’s slightly less referencing of the original movies, as if the writers have found the confidence to stand on their own — which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a major acknowledgement of the third movie or that the season doesn’t end, once again, with a big callback. This time, even as I feel that Cobra Kai continues to surpass whatever low expectations I could ever have initially had for it, I’m less excited to see where it progresses.
Cast: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan, Martin Kove, Jacob Bertrand, Nichole Brown, Peyton List
Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald
Premieres Wednesday, April 24, on YouTube Premium.
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