The SmarK Rant for Cobra Kai
This is less of an episode-by-episode rant and more of an overall review of the series as a whole thus far, because I really loved it and finally wrapped up the third season yesterday.
SPOILERS ARE EVERYWHERE AHEAD.
So I think the main reason why I loved the show so much is that it’s truly “shades of grey” for everyone involved. Much like in real life, people are not necessarily all good, or all bad, or all whatever. Allegiances shift over time, and teenagers are still figuring out who they are. Essentially Cobra Kai is the sequel to the Karate Kid movies, and yes even the Karate Kid III is part of canon, with the main conflict being the rivalry between forty-something “karate boys” Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Johnny in particular is delightful, a complete loser who is like the high school quarterback still holding out the dream that he can go back and win the big one someday, although in this case it’s longing for a return to the karate tournament in 1984 where Daniel hit him with an “illegal kick” to win the All Valley Tournament. And get ready to have people bring THAT up a lot, including the show itself, which uses flashbacks to the original movies as plot devices to drive the narrative. Even Karate Kid III. Johnny meets bullied nerd Miguel in his run down building, and saves him from a group of teenage thugs outside the ghetto-ass 7-11 that he buys his pizza (and beer, SO MUCH beer) from, which triggers a series of events that leads him to re-open the Cobra Kai karate dojo and train Miguel. Season 1 introduces Miguel’s school nerd friends Demetri and Eli (who goes in a TOTALLY different direction right away) plus the standard mean girl clique. And then we meet Johnny’s estranged (but dreamy) juvenile delinquent son Robby Keene, and the season begins building to a karate showdown at the All Valley Tournament again between the underdog nerds and the bad boy son of Johnny Lawrence…but then the dynamic swings into a completely surprising and unexpected direction, and the show actually has a lot to say about “nature vs nurture” and what happens when a nice kid gets trained by someone who preaches “the best defense is MORE OFFENSE”, while a bad kid gets trained by someone who used to be the bullied victim and now preaches self-defense above all. They could have went the easy route and they absolutely did not. In fact, one of the strongest character moments, again using the footage from the movies, is Johnny relating the plot of Karate Kid from HIS point of view, which suddenly doesn’t make Daniel-San seem like such a good guy in retrospect.
And let’s talk about Johnny Lawrence a bit, because he’s amazing. Take a drink every time he, well, takes a drink, but his unfrozen caveman attitude towards the world moving past 1984 is a thing of beauty. Johnny introducing Miguel to the greatness of Ratt is just as effective a moment as teaching him to fight, and Johnny’s exasperated reactions to a pawn shop dealer with no time for his box of junk or computer questions (“Did you plug it in?”) is so painfully cringe but makes you cheer for him all the more. I’d watch a whole show about Johnny trying to make a Facebook profile and write a message to someone.
Season 2 reintroduces the sneering villain that the series needed, John Kreese, aka SWEEP THE LEG. It also delves into the karate career of Samantha, Daniel’s daughter, who finds herself torn between Robby and Miguel while Johnny’s life continues to get worse and their forty year rivalry just won’t stop. Giant spray-painted dicks are involved. In fact, that’s mostly the theme of the season, with Daniel recreating Miyagi-Do and training his own group of students, including Johnny’s son Robby, while Johnny trains his own surrogate son Miguel and Kreese worms his way back into Cobra Kai and acts as a bad influence on everyone. My personal favorite bit was Kreese and Johnny motivating their students by putting them in the back of a cement mixer and getting them to rotate the drum by moving forward. And their parents would be very proud of them if they ever found out about it, WHICH THEY NEVER WILL. Of course, as you’d expect, the high school drama builds towards an actual karate fight in the high school, which takes up the entire season finale and culminates with a pretty shocking moment that elicited a gasp out of me, at the very least.
Season 3 moves to the show to Netflix and suddenly product placement is everywhere, but it has a couple of the best episodes of the entire run of the series, including Daniel going to Okinawa for a business trip and learning about a whole new side of Miyagi’s karate teachings. Johnny reuniting with the grown-up members of his gang from the original movie is a close second, although with a payoff that is much sadder and somehow more on point for eternal loser Johnny. And yet again, allegiances and motivations change with the characters, as Robby swings back towards his bitter origins thanks to his actions in the season 2 finale, and Miguel redeems himself with the help of Twisted Sister. It all leads up to the most bad-ass and epic finale, paying off with the three-way fight between Daniel, Johnny and Kreese that the series had been building towards all along, and setting up the fourth season, which can’t come soon enough.
If you love pro wrestling, you’ll find something to love with this show. There’s even hints at the shared philosophy in the form of a pair of wrestling nerds who train at Cobra Kai and make comparisons to the British Bulldogs and the Hart Foundation (“There were all friends!” “Not at Wrestlemania III!”) and also namedrop Chris Jericho when someone is trying for an armbar. I can appreciate that.
Not everything is great. Kreese has a backstory and de-saturated flashbacks now, and I’m not there for that. Daniel’s car dealership career isn’t particularly interesting, and him running into career issues because of karate feels like a forced bit of conflict that could have been spent on something else. Samantha jumping from boy to boy is kind of eye-rolling and even the show itself calls it out by the end of the third season so hopefully they knock it off in season four. And Kyler. UGH. Wisely leaving him in the dustbin of useless jock stereotypes in the first season was a good move, but bringing him back as Kreese’s new star pupil in season 3 is NO BUYS. There’s only room for one one-dimensional sneering asshole, and that’s Kreese.
The show is sort of classified as a comedy by YouTube in the original incarnation, and there’s some really funny stuff to be sure. Hawk’s sound cue every time he takes his shirt off always gets a laugh. Johnny’s complete ineptitude at anything resembling normal social interactions in 2021. Daniel’s poorly-chosen executive sales staff. But really, it’s a wrestling-style soap opera, with periodic karate fights taking the place of matches and teen drama, plus man-child grown-up drama, taking the place of traditional booking. It’s just so fantastic and somehow makes the original movies even better. Even Karate Kid III. It’s so much fun and worth your 30 minutes to at least give the first episode a shot and see if you agree.