There’s a scene in the third season of Cobra Kai that epitomizes the reason for the show’s success.
Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) wants to post some pictures of himself on Facebook but, he laments, all he has are old ones. Suddenly he’s whipping out photos of a Tiger Beat-era Zabka from the peak of his ‘80s movies bad-boy fame. In photos that must have donned many a tween girls’ bedroom walls back in the day, Zabka is resplendent with a highlighted feather mullet and a bare, oiled-up chest. “Do you have any where you are wearing a shirt maybe?” his protégé Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) deadpans.
It is the show’s (and its stars) self-awareness and ability to laugh at itself while telling a modern story that has made the series such a surprise hit. Or a hit now, thanks to its move to Netflix.
Far too often, by the time an under-the-radar show finds the attention and adoration it deserves, it’s too late. Sure people love My So-Called Life, Freaks & Geeks, and Happy Endings now. But almost no one was watching them when they were actually on.
For two and a half years, I’ve been singing the praises of Cobra Kai and every time I talked about the show, people would give me a befuddled look. There’s actually a show that continues the story of The Karate Kid? Yes! William Zabka and Ralph Macchio are both in it? Yes! It’s actually good? Yes! It airs on something you call YouTube Red or possibly YouTube Premium? Not anymore!
In a way, I feel a little sorry for those who only watched once the show hit Netflix. Because for me, watching the series when it premiered by in May 2018 was a delightful discovery. Everything about continuing The Karate Kid story thirty-plus years later seemed like a bad idea. Why muck with a beloved movie from so many people’s childhood? When would revivals stop messing with our memories?
But instead of being a crass money grab, the series was a surprisingly clever take on aging high school rivalries while being a good old fashion throwback to the 1980s, complete with extended montages, rock and roll fight sequences, and a head-banging soundtrack. The series is the ultimate flip of the script, turning the erstwhile villain Johnny into the show’s main protagonist. Viewers soon learned that the intervening years have not been kind to Johnny—he lives in a rundown apartment, he’s estranged from his only son Robby (Tanner Buchanan), he drinks too much and has squandered any potential he once had. In the first season, he meets Miguel, a bullied teen, and Johnny, to his own surprise, becomes something of a Mr. Miyagi opening up his own karate dojo and collecting a rag-tag bunch of teens who need his help. Daniel (Ralph Macchio) now lives the life he was always on the outskirts of. The owner of his own car dealership, he has a huge house and the country club membership. His daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) now follows in her father’s karate footsteps as Daniel opens a dojo of his own (naturally). The show’s second season brought back the villain Kreese (Martin Kove)—who has become even more nefarious—and the ended with a school brawl where Robby and Miguel jockeyed for Sam’s attention.
Picking up just two weeks after that fateful brawl, Miguel in a coma in the hospital and Robby is missing. Daniel’s car dealership is suffering the consequences. “Turns out kicking the competition isn’t a cute tag line when your karate student literally kicked the competition over a railing,” Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) bemoans. The show moves on to mine The Karate Kid II, the highlight being Tamlyn Tomita’s deftly reprising her role of Daniel’s love interest Yuji Okumoto. The series also continues its beloved reverence for Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi whose presence is still felt in Daniel’s life.
Part of what makes the show so special is its charming mix of the ridiculous with the more sublime. The series is a study in contradictions. I won’t spoil it here but the culmination of the third season is the height of this phenomenon. Not one but two over-the-top action sequences are juxtaposed against a much more thoughtful, sweet take on revisiting your high school past. The show could have easily gone in a more salacious direction with a certain character return, but Cobra Kai is not that kind of show.
The aforementioned tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek self-awareness is the show’s secret weapon. Easter eggs and less subtle shout outs to the movies are peppered throughout the season. But Cobra Kai, at its heart, knows that it is ridiculous that two grown men are still jostling back and forth over a karate tournament that happened 36 years ago. “You both think there’s only one side of the story,” one character says. The season kicks off with a man being interviewed on the news saying “I thought karate died out in the ‘80s.” When they have to go before the town board because the All Valley tournament has been cancelled, the board chair says incredulously, “To be honest with you, I don’t get the valley’s fascination with karate.”
But what really makes the show work is Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence. He’s a walking homage to that era, driving a beat-up Dodge caravan, listening to metal music on his cassette tape player, and eschewing modern technology. His language is horrifically politically incorrect (his word of choice is “pussy”), but _Cobra Kai _never justifies his behavior as much as it seeks to understand it. While Zabka provides much of the show’s humor, Johnny isn’t is a goofy caricature. And that’s due to Zabka’s layered performance. One of the reasons I’m most excited that Cobra Kai is on Netflix is that I’m hopeful that now Zabka will get the prestige attention he deserves. I want to see him on the award show circuit.
This is not to discount Macchio’s stellar performance, but no longer the underdog, Daniel is just not the hero of this story. (Although for sure there is a portrait of Macchio aging in the attic somewhere). For the most part, the younger performers are also great (in addition to Maridueña, I have a special fondness for Jacob Bertrand’s Hawk and Gianni Decenzo’s Demetri). But even with all the teen soap opera shenanigans, this is so clearly Johnny’s story—without Zabka’s nuanced take, Cobra Kai wouldn’t work.
In addition to take a trip down memory lane to The Karate Kid II, the third season also delves into Kreese’s backstory, trying to provide insight into a man who has become so menacing. (Kove’s own son Jesse Kove plays a jock who bullies Barrett Carnahan’s Young Kreese, which is an inspired bit of casting). Perhaps you wouldn’t think Cobra Kai would be a good show to take on the lingering traumatic effects of the Vietnam War, but the deep dive into what made Kreese the man he is today tracks. Cobra Kai is forever interested in how the past informs the present.
All in all, Cobra Kai , which thankfully has already been picked up for a fourth season, remains a pure, escapist delight.
Happy New Year! All 10 episodes of the third season of Cobra Kai premiere January 1, 2021 on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.