The cult hit series moves fully to Netflix for a season 3 packed with roundhouse kicks and a war of wits between its rival senseis.
It’s hard to know what to make of the ’80s nostalgia boom that’s hit pop culture in recent years — that Stranger Things-y crystallization of an entire decade has permeated everything from prestige drama to Wonder Woman flicks, a throwback aesthetic revived for a newer generation (or, more accurately, the same generation who grew up in it and desperately clamors for the apparent simplicity of those times in a chaotic 21st century). But like so many things about our youth, it can be dangerous to romanticize it at the expense of our messy present. That’s a lesson that, of all things, Cobra Kai understands more than most of its ’80s-inspired kin.
Its first two seasons were the only worthwhile things about YouTube’s abortive streaming service, YouTube Red; that the show finally expanded its super-cult audience when its first two seasons hit Netflix should come as no surprise. Now, Netflix is putting out its own third season of the show (with a fourth confirmed), and even as it starts to flirt with wearing thin, it’s still a potent mix of nostalgia and heart.
When last we left the residents of the San Fernando Valley — an area of the country that, in the world of Cobra Kai, is still inexplicably obsessed with karate — the simmering rivalry between Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) came to a head duking it out in an enormous high-school brawl between the teenage members of their respective dojos. The result? Johnny’s son (and Danny’s student) Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) becoming a fugitive, Johnny’s star pupil Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) breaking his back and going into a coma, and the community turning on both dojos for egging their kids into violence. What’s more, Johnny leaves Cobra Kai, his grizzled, macho former mentor John Kreese (Martin Kove) filling the void and returning the dojo to its “strike first, strike hard, no mercy” principles.
Season 3 sees Johnny and Daniel doing their best to heal the town’s respective wounds, as well as their own, and producers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg are refreshingly committed to seeing the ways these two men try (and fail) to grow on their own. One of the best moves the show gave us was to let us enter the world through Johnny’s point of view — the quintessential ’80s movie villain ending up the washed-up, peaked-in-high-school loser you’d expect. Zabka, visibly stiff and a bit wooden in his initial appearances, has really grown into the character, inhabiting every bit of his caveman-trapped-in-the-Reagan-years persona while humanizing him over the course of the series.
Daniel, meanwhile, has peaked in his own way; he’s settled, with a lovely wife (Courtney Henggeler), kids (including Mary Mouser’s Sam, who follows her father’s karate footsteps), and a car dealership that capitalizes on his 1984 fame. While they seem from different worlds, they couldn’t be more alike — just as competitive, just as willing to let one karate tournament thirty years ago define their self-worth. It’s that dynamic that the show plays on so nicely, especially in season 3 as their connections to their respective students start to bring them together in unexpected ways. (One episode sees them going full Starsky and Hutch to find Robby, as charming as it is slightly disposable.)
Just like the washed-up senseis at its center, Cobra Kai spends a lot of season 3 interrogating the old dynamics by which they define their lives, and the gulf between the black-and-white simplicity of the ’80s and the morally-grey complexities of the 2010s and 2020s. The production still finds ways to turn its lower budget and cheesier elements to its advantage — the brightly lit, modest presentation reads as charming rather than amateurish, as does the heavy-metal music cues and occasionally bone-headed dialogue.
It’s perfect when it’s in the mouths of Johnny, Daniel, and Kreese (Kove getting more chances to show layers to his toxic alpha-male mentor, seething with Jesse Ventura machismo); less so when the show tries to write for its expanded cast of teenage characters. Still, the show manages to make them endearing too, particularly Maridueña’s revitalized father-son gig with Johnny and the fractured friendship between former nerds-turned-rivals Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Demetri (Gianni Decenzo).
Despite its aims, Cobra Kai mixes its messages a bit too often, especially considering the way the show’s dynamics are starting to steer back towards the good vs. evil dichotomy that plagues its ’80s inspirations. The initial point of the show was that Danny and Johnny, despite their animus, wanted the same thing — using karate to improve the lives of the kids they tutor — but let personal grievances get in the way of those goals. With the arrival of Kreese, however, and the third season’s introduction of some good old fashioned ’80s-style high school bullies for our rivals to reconcile over, we’re getting dangerously close to finding our heroes trying to kick and punch their way to solving their problems.
Granted, that can lead to some fun sequences, including a long-take brawl between karate schools at season’s close that rivals the school fight at season 2’s end. But by the time Peyton List‘s sociopathic Tory corners her rival Sam for the dozenth time, sneering as she wields nunchakus, one can’t help but wonder if we’re starting to unlearn the lessons Mr. Miyagi taught us in the first Karate Kid.
Even so, the third season is still awash in the charming characters and arched eyebrow that made it such a cult hit in the first place, and even starts to expand its roster of references beyond the first Karate Kid film (some familiar faces from the sequel show up, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts we see Hilary Swank show up before the series ends). But fundamentally, the show remains about our struggles to recover or repair the mistakes of the past, and that push and pull between spite and healing for our two over-the-hill karate combatants is the energy that keeps Cobra Kai afloat. There are still problems to be sure, and the show threatens at several moments to fall victim to its own hype. But if season 3 is as bad as the show gets, we’re in for a hella-good time for the rest of the show.
Cobra Kai learns to sweep the leg in its new home on Netflix on January 1st, 2021.