When the teasers and trailers were released for the YouTube original, Cobra Kai, I was intrigued but also a little concerned it was going to play to obvious Karate Kid tropes and cliché comedic beats. This was due to the style of the marketing and the manner in which clips were presented, against a generic bubbly music track.
The show was was made to look light-weight and goofy; a sort of modern day Grumpy Old Men. That said, it would still win me over because of my nostalgic connection with the franchise, but I hoped for more than what was being previewed.
Thankfully, over the past two seasons, Cobra Kai has managed to sweep away my lowered expectations; delivering heart-felt moments and hard hitting twists, poking fun only when appropriate.
Despite how it may have been pitched, the show really isn't a comedy at all, and in context, the clips presented in the trailers play out much better in the actual show. Most of Cobra Kai's comedy is limited to Johnny Lawrence's fish-out-of-water struggle in the modern world; when dealing with either technology or millennials. Johnny is stuck in his high-school glory days during the 80s and William Zabke's rendition of the character in this light is brilliant. His life from the day he lost the All-Valley Karate Championship final regresses until he finds some purpose again, opening the Cobra Kai dojo.
Telling the story from Johnny's point of view gives a great deal of depth to the character and was the most creative angle possible by the creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald to pursue. The Karate Kid always focused on the downtrodden, so it makes sense now to follow Johnny who has become a struggling (ace) degenerate.
In turn, we see that Daniel LaRusso has become a successful business man and a bit of a douche; much more confident, popular and well-to-do than he ever was in his teens. He lives in the nice part of town, attends exclusive social functions at a fancy country club and has a beautiful wife and family.
When Daniel notices the re-emergence of Cobra Kai in Reseda, Daniel firstly tries to get it closed by using his business influence before deciding to revive Miyagi-Do instead, to counter-balance the style of Karate he believes is being taught.
At its core, Cobra Kai is about the tension between the teaching of Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai (the legacies of Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese respectively). Therefore, the rivalry between Johnny and Daniel is central, and the show explores how this rivalry can become toxic, affecting more than just their respective egos.
A series of misunderstanding ensure that Daniel's quick temper never allows him to see that Johnny is actually trying to change, and that he himself is therefore not really following the Miyagi teachings he keeps espousing. Johnny on the other hand, can't catch a break. Every time things start looking to work out, something sets him back.
However, despite the focus on Johnny and Cobra Kai, the most surprising element of the show is how well the new characters have been introduced and integrated into The Karate Kid lore and how the show has flipped the script on the types of characters we'd imagine enter the schools of Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do respectively.
*** Spoilers ***
The catalyst for re-opening the Cobra Kai dojo is Miguel, a "sweet boy" living with a single mother. In the early episodes of Season One we see him being bullied and when Johnny saves him from a beating, he convinces Johnny to teach him Karate.
Cobra Kai begins to do the pair a lot of good, with Johnny finding purpose, as more and more students join, and Miguel is encouraged by having a father figure in his life and a new found confidence to navigate his way through adolescence.
While this is happening, we meet Robbie Keane and learn he is Johnny's estranged son. Robbie is a street-smart kid whose living a life of petty-crime, hustling to support his alcoholic mother. Interestingly, the absence of a father figure parallels Johnny's own up-bringing, which we see in flash-backs from a time before the original film.
Robbie is at first looking to get back at Johnny by starting to bond with Daniel; jealous and angry about the relationship he sees his father have with Miguel. However, not before long, Robbie begins to adopt the teachings of Miyagi-Do and defends LaRusso's business from the hustlers he used to hang around with when they attempt to break in.
Interestingly, Daniel also has an estranged son of sorts, Anthony, who is a minor character; a video game playing spoilt millennial. He lacks an interest in karate (or much else) and is in-different to the drama around him, always waiting on someone to do things for him. Daniel's connection to Robbie is perhaps a reaction to not being able to have the same sort of relationship with his own son.
Entangled in the story of fathers and sons is Samantha (Sam), Daniel's daughter, who starts to date Miguel but leaves him as he transitions from a boy who's grown in confidence to one who slowly becomes a bully himself. He reacts angrily out of jealousy when he thinks Sam is cheating on him with Robbie and the altercation adds hatred to the dojo rivalry heading into the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
Much of the drama in Cobra Kai could be avoided if characters just let other characters explain themselves, but despite all teaching to the contrary, tempers flare and fists fly easily. Old grudges die hard and rash emotion often wins over calmer discourse. At the end of Season One, the tournament becomes the backdrop for all the tension created throughout the family drama and love triangles to be released.
The Cobra Kai students enter the tournament and dominate. Miyagi-Do is represented by Robbie Keane, who is injured on the way to final due to an illegal move by Hawk, another character with a similar arc to Miguel, who begins as one of the "nerds", Eli, but re-builds himself through Cobra Kai.
While plotted out in much the same way as The Karate Kid movie, the show twists things as we've followed both characters through the season. We are waiting for Miguel, who has slowly became hate-able by this point, to redeem himself. While Robbie, who started the series as an antagonist, has redeemed himself.
When they face off in the final, we don't know who to root for, but we expect that there will be a triumphant finish, with the two fighter's making peace perhaps, regardless of who wins the contest. That doesn't come. Miguel uses a cheap shot on Robbie's injury in order to break the dead-lock and win the tournament. His treatment of Sam leading up to the final compounds the tragic ending and his arc from sweet boy, to bully, is complete.
Johnny, seeing his son injured can't celebrate the win and we see the regret on his face. This isn't what he intended to do for the kids he teaches. Daniel in turn, shows no mercy himself and sees the situation as validating his "holier than thou" attitude to Karate.
Great moments of forgives and possible friendship between Johnny and Daniel are sprinkled throughout the season, but in the end there relationship is left strained once more. A tragic ending and nothing that we'd come to expect from The Karate Kid franchise, but all the while, perfect.
In Season Two the stakes are raised even higher in a similar fashion to how The Karate Kid Part II did in the films by moving fighting away from the tournament scene.
The season is set during summer break when the students can focus on training. Without a tournament to look toward as a way to expel tension, the fighting scenes in this season are much more dangerous.
John Kreese's return adds tension in the Cobra Kai dojo as Johnny strives to teach his students that the way they won the tournament might have been without mercy, but it was also "without honour" and therefore not "bad-ass". Kreese seems to go along with it, but is plotting his take-over, slithering in the background and whispering in the students ears. In particular, Hawk, who has now become a complete bully.
The start of the season has moments of light-hearted rivalry between the two dojos as Daniel has now re-opened Miyagi-Do officially. He is looking to win over students from Cobra Kai but his obsession soon starts to affect his personal life and business. His wife has a bigger and better role this season, anchoring him to reality. We also see Johnny get romantically involved with Miguel's mother, who is thankful for what he has done for her son and he assures her he will keep him on the right path as she was concerned that what she saw in the tournament was more than just his "game face".
Season two also leverages more of The Karate Kid canon, with references applicable to the story, such as Daniel explaining how he was tempted by Cobra Kai himself (in Karate Kid III) while he attempts to change the hearts and minds of his students who don't understand his methods. However, while we've been treated to some great nostalgic moments, none have been better than the reunion between Johnny and his high-school Cobra Kai friends in a really touching episode.
While it seems that Daniel and Johnny may find some peace in being friendly rivals, the love triangle between Miguel, Sam and Robbie is further complicated by the arrival of Tory. Her poor upbringing has made her a natural fighter and she takes a liking to Miguel when she joins Cobra Kai. The resentment, manipulation and tension between the four ends in tragedy when a fight breaks out on the first day back at school.
Tory's misreading of a kiss between Miguel and Sam at an end of summer party starts the fight, which becomes an all out melee between counterparts from Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do. Sam manages to end the fight but not before Tory uses some street-fighting tricks to seriously hurt her.
Meanwhile, Miguel—who has made steps to change—and Robbie, who's temper keeps getting the better of him, face off. While they both perhaps intend on stopping the girls from fighting, they can't help but let anger get the better of them. In the end, it's Miguel who shows mercy, a lesson Johnny has tried to teach him throughout the season. However, when he does, Robbie uses the opportunity to get his own cheap shot in, this results in Miguel rolling back over a railing and falling several floors below onto a stairwell.
The fight comes to an abrupt end. It's not what we were expecting from the tone of the scene up until that point. The consequences far worse than we were imagining. Tory and Sam are both clearly shaken. Robbie is horrified and runs off, knowing he took things to far.
There's a moment in the closing scenes, when Johnny and Daniel enter the same lift as they leave the hospital where Miguel is in critical condition. They give each other a look, and nothing is said. Both men understand the cost their rivalry has had on them and the distorted legacy they are leaving through their teachings.
Another tragic ending has perfectly set up a third season. Johnny has lost everything; his dojo due to the re-emergence of Kreese as well as his new family, with Miguel's mother blaming his for what happened to her son. Daniel on the other hand has lost his way, well-intended as he was in trying to keep the spirit of Mr. Miyagi alive. Karate, which gave him so much, has now taken much away.
Cobra Kai, strikes first, strikes hard and shows no mercy. Thus far subverting expectations and re-invigorated The Karate Kid without re-booting it. It has successfully added much weight to a series, which had so often given us happy endings by exploring the consequences of martial arts and the bonding of fathers and sons over violence.