By Michael A. Pedowitz
There were a host of reasons why people this past December looked forward to the New Year. For fans of the “Karate Kid” saga, however, this Jan. 1 came with an extra gift: the long-awaited release of the third season of “Cobra Kai,” the karate series that has taken Netflix by storm.
“Cobra Kai,” which originally debuted on YouTube Premium (formerly YouTube Red) before moving to Netflix in 2020, takes place 34 years after the original “Karate Kid” film. It centers on former bad-boy elitist Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who now struggles to make a living as an alcoholic loner. When his asthmatic teenage neighbor, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), is threatened by a gang of bullies, Johnny defends him using karate. After being asked by Miguel to teach him karate, Johnny, after losing his job, ultimately decides to reopen his old dojo, Cobra Kai, to teach other socially-outcast teens by the motto “Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy.”
By reopening the dojo, Johnny comes into further conflict with his former rival and nemesis, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who now enjoys life as a wealthy car dealership co-owner with his wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler). Daniel struggles to connect with his children—especially his daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser)—and to find balance in life since his former mentor, Mr. Miyagi, passed away. With neither Daniel nor Johnny able to let go of the past, their rivalry consumes those around them as their own students and children engage in their own complicated relationships and rivalries.
Hosting a complex storyline and countless references and connections to the original movie trilogy, “Cobra Kai” is a must-watch for any “Karate Kid” fan. However, while the third season leans heaviest on the original films, the entire series’ captivating balance of action, drama, romance and comedy make the show a worthy watch for anyone seeking an exciting, binge-worthy series.
“Cobra Kai” is a relevant, engaging show that pulls no punches in terms of its action, solidified by its realistic and multidimensional characters. Refreshingly, there is no “good side” or “bad side” in this series—each character is truly the hero of their own story, and each is given time to breathe and engage with others in compelling ways.
Season one of “Cobra Kai” is largely about Johnny’s struggle to turn Miguel and his friends from laughingstocks into champions in time for the All-Valley Tournament, the same competition at which Lawrence, a former champion, suffered a humiliating defeat against Daniel LaRusso. LaRusso, meanwhile, finds a new karate student in Johnny’s estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who seeks revenge against his father.
Things become more complicated in season two when Lawrence’s old sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove), returns and tries to teach the Cobra Kai students the harsh breed of karate that, ultimately, ruined Johnny’s life. After the tournament, however, Johnny tries to teach the now-champion Miguel about the virtues of honor, and Daniel takes on a second student in his daughter Sam. I’ll avoid spoilers in this article, but it should suffice to say that tensions flare between the new Miyagi-Do Karate and Cobra Kai, leading to devastating outcomes for all involved.
Season three picks up after the events of season two, leaving the characters struggling to make sense of their rivalry and to find a renewed sense of meaning. As Johnny and Kreese’s relationship worsens, Daniel travels to Okinawa, Japan, to find answers about his dealership and about Mr. Miyagi’s past—and both protagonists meet familiar faces along the way.
“Cobra Kai” is, by all accounts, a phenomenal show. I binge-watched the first two seasons with my family over the course of a weekend last summer, and devoured the epic third season as it was released this past New Year’s. Unlike the original movies, the content in the series is best suited for mature, high-school-and-up audiences. The rating actually serves as an asset to the show, “growing up” with the original viewers while remaining nostalgic — a continuous theme throughout the series itself.
The show features talented performances by all of its cast, especially so by Zabka, Macchio and Kove — the “Karate Kid” originals who continue to bring vivacity into their famous characters, diving deeper into their own personal backstories and worldviews throughout the seasons. Where other long-awaited sequel stories fail to instill new life into old characters, “Cobra Kai” honors their past and history while urging them to take risks, make mistakes and develop. The original films provide a context for the show, but the series finds depth on its own and truly allows its characters to drive the plot — not the other way around.
“Cobra Kai,” like any show, is not without its flaws. It occasionally suffers from overreliance on its movie predecessor (later episodes require familiarity with the original films), and features an underdeveloped central villain (Kreese’s sadistic behavior, at times, lacks a clear motivation). While new and conflicted villains, such as Tory (Peyton List) and Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), as well as unsuspecting heroes such as Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo), add further layers of complexity and humanity to the story, the show sometimes finds itself in the realm of predictability in later seasons, when certain conflicts become inevitable.
These defects, however, are minor compared to the show’s strengths: its resilient messages, well-placed 80’s nostalgia, excellent soundtrack and cinematography, and most of all its characters, are what makes this show a great watch. As an added bonus, the show is equally edge-of-your-seat thrilling as it is laugh-out-loud funny — Johnny’s struggle with technology and modern culture drives much of the show’s humorous moments, which are well integrated into the drama of the show. And if you’re a martial artist like myself, the show’s exciting action might just inspire you to brush up on your old moves — it is, after all, a karate show.
In times that seem intent on showing ‘no mercy,’ “Cobra Kai” is a refreshing reminder to viewers of the invaluable skills of confidence and resilience. It is filled with grit, inspiration, and fun — three qualities that make the show successful and highly enjoyable. So, before you encounter any major spoilers that might ruin that fun, make sure you ‘strike first’ by watching this show.