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If the creative team behind Cobra Kai were complacent, the Karate Kid sequel probably would have just been a five-minute short on Funny or Die.
“What if Johnny, the vicious Aryan heartthrob villain from The Karate Kid, were actually the hero? Pretty funny, right? The end.”
AIR DATE Jan 01, 2021
Probably “ambitious” still isn’t the first word you would ever use to describe Cobra Kai, a half-hour dramedy that represents the precarious nature of Peak TV in that a bona fide breakout from a fledgling streaming service — YouTube Red turned YouTube Premium — still couldn’t avoid getting cut adrift before moving to the higher-profile climes of Netflix. And yet the gap between baseline expectations (very, very low) and aspirations (not nearly as low, if not exactly Twin Peaks: The Return) for Cobra Kai is impressively wide.
So if I were to criticize the third season of Cobra Kai for frequently aspiring to things the foundation of the show isn’t steady enough to support, the complaint is tempered by the understanding that Cobra Kai remains likable and often rousingly entertaining. The new season has flaws in its efforts to give its story new dramatic underpinnings, and those flaws at times really bugged me. The new season is also the closest creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg have come to evoking the actual tone of the original franchise.
These 10 episodes begin in the aftermath of the high-school brawl that left Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) hospitalized and in a coma; Robby (Tanner Buchanan) on the run from the law; Robby’s dad and Miguel’s sensei Johnny (William Zabka) disillusioned with the entire martial arts game; Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) dealing with a wave of bad publicity jeopardizing their auto dealership empire; and the entire Valley’s obsession with karate in disarray. This chaos is exactly what the nefarious John Kreese (Martin Kove) wants and this may be the moment for Cobra Kai (the dojo, not the show) to truly rise.
The series started off as a goof, with Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence introduced as an Encino Man/Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer type chipped out of a block of ice formed in the late ’80s and forced to combat the Internet, shifting cultural notions of masculinity and, again, the Internet. It worked because Zabka was far funnier than most people realized, even if most people would have realized it had memories of the later seasons of How I Met Your Mother not required repressing. The ambition in the second season was keeping most of the comedy while raising the level of earnestness.
As we start the third season, then, it’s interesting to report that Cobra Kai has almost completely left behind the idea of self-mocking comedy, and I don’t think the show especially suffers from the tonal shift. There are still scenes built around Johnny’s ineptitude with his old Dell laptop and his struggles understanding the Internet, and those scenes remain a pleasure. But when you look to other scenes that aspire broadly to laughs — an unfunny sequence with a randy homeless woman flirting with Johnny at a soup kitchen comes groaningly to mind — it’s possible that aiming for even fewer chuckles might benefit Cobra Kai.
The creators recognize that where things left off from last season called for some measure of solemnity or at least respect if Cobra Kai was to feel like it had any stakes at all. So Miguel isn’t immediately going to hop out of his hospital bed and into roundhouse kicks, nor can Robby just stroll back to school with a sheepish, “What did I miss?” Consequences are central to the season, as is the notion of forgiveness, which gives the new episodes an almost spiritual introspection that it didn’t have previously. As one character puts it, “Regret is sometimes difficult to overcome.”
While Miguel’s rehabilitation offers the sort of optimistic montages that Cobra Kai thrives on, Robby’s difficulties in the legal system bring a darkness into the storytelling that the show lacks the nuance to really explore. That leads to some moments that are somewhere between clumsy and racially problematic. And if you’re wondering if Cobra Kai has the production values — we’ll see if the fourth season, made with Netflix money, offers more resources — or maturity to weave in full-fledged Vietnam War flashbacks as part of an attempt to give Kreese a backstory, the answer is unequivocal: “No, it does not.” At all.
You might have said the same thing about the film franchise and questioned whether or not the movies had the gravity necessary to pull off a Japan-set (Hawaii-filmed) second installment, and you wouldn’t have been wrong. So it’s interesting that the new Cobra Kai season spends multiple episodes paying homage to the flawed sequel and, in most ways, exceeds its level of cultural sensitivity. You don’t need to worry, of course, about remembering much of anything about Karate Kid II, its events or its primary Japanese characters, because there’s nothing Cobra Kai likes doing so much as peppering episodes with vintage clips.
It’s here that you might already be thinking that the third Cobra Kai season sounds a little busy. Miguel in the hospital? Robby in juvie? Daniel in Japan? Johnny online? That’s without getting to the ongoing tensions between Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and bad girl Tory (Peyton List), a clash in which my sympathies — Team Tory all the way — clearly aren’t where the show wants them to be. It’s absolutely a busy season and every once in a while I lost track of which dojo was supposed to be “evil,” which teenage warriors were faithful to which sensei and which love triangles had been explored and which merely implied. But that’s OK. By the time the season reaches its tenth episode, there’s a clear objective for the fourth season, and it’s a tremendous relief that Netflix ordered that season soon after the YouTube rescue.
The homestretch of the season generally contains some of the series’ best work to date (albeit mixed with the Vietnam flashbacks that, as I said, don’t really work). There are several well-utilized guest stars from the franchise’s past, actors who bring out the most confident of the show’s homages and utilize Zabka and Macchio’s strengths in ways that are surprisingly emotional. The second half of the season makes wise use of Henggeler — a much more natural screen comic than her co-stars — as more than just Daniel’s disapproving wife, giving her some satisfying confrontations if not actual action.
And speaking of action, the series once again peaks in the closing episodes of a season. The school brawl that ended the second run redeemed 10 episodes of lackluster fighting, and this season’s climactic action set piece is driven by one very impressive continuous take (with at least one masked cut, but who’s counting) that I watched a couple times on my screener just to marvel at the choreography and the fairly seamless stunt doubling. The same can’t be said of at least one earlier fight the duration of which I admired while giggling at how poorly one of the show’s main stars was being swapped in and out for every single kick or punch.
The fourth season of Cobra Kai that’s teased in the finale already feels like it ought to be a wrap-up for the entire series, what this goof-turned-solid-show has been building to all along. But I’ve underestimated Cobra Kai before, and it keeps aiming for, if not always perfectly achieving, more.
Cast: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Mary Mouser, Tanner Buchanan, Martin Kove, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Peyton List
Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald
Premieres on Friday, January 1, on Netflix.
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