Cobra Kai never dies.
And thank goodness. The series, which continues The Karate Kid story, survived two seasons in relative obscurity on YouTube, an overwhelmingly successful transition to Netflix and remains, in its fourth season, the rare revival that fans still really want to see. (I don’t want to name names but I couldn’t help but wonder: What were the other revivals thinking?)
The secret to the show’s success is its loving embrace of its source material—warts and all. The law of diminishing returns was hard at work with The Karate Kid franchise. By the time we got to The Karate Kid Part III things had gone, shall we say, rather astray. And Cobra Kai knows it.
The big news about Season 4, of course, is that Thomas Ian Griffith returns to reprise his role as the nefarious Terry Silver, John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) old pal from the Vietnam War. In The Karate Kid Part III we are introduced to Terry as he is signing a plutonium deal and saying things like “For the next few weeks my business is strictly revenge.” Not exactly subtle. But it was the ‘80s right? Excess was the name of the game.
Now Terry is living in a modern oceanfront mansion, drinking expensive wine, eating tofu, and practicing mindfulness. Kreese wants to pull him back into the dojo. Together they can win the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament.
But Terry doesn’t remember his time on The Karate Kid III fondly. “I was so hopped up on cocaine, revenge. I spent months terrorizing a teenager over a high school karate tournament. It sounds insane just talking about it,” Silver says. What a relief that Cobra Kai isn’t going to treat The Karate Kid III as if it were an Academy Award-winning film. As always, Cobra Kai remains in on the joke.
The new season picks up right after the events of the third season finale, which ended with Cobra Kai attacking Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) and the rest of Miyagi Do and Eagle Fang in the LaRusso home. Now, Daniel and Johnny (William Zabka) have a shaky alliance. If Cobra Kai is defeated in the All Valley championship, Kreese has promised to close the doors of Cobra Kai forever.
Always the voice of reason, Daniel’s wife Amanda (Courtney Henggler) laments, “If you had told me a year ago that our family’s safety depended on winning a karate tournament…” Of course it’s ridiculous that everyone takes karate so seriously.
Viewers will also have to wrap their mind around the fact that only a year has passed between the first season and this one. Just to give you an idea, in that time, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) has been thrown from a second story landing, broken his back, endured physical therapy, and is returning to the All Valley Tournament as the defending champion.
You could almost be on board with the slow-moving time frame if Miguel didn’t look nearly four years older. Daniel’s son Anthony (Griffin Santopietro) gets more screen time too, as he’s gone from a little kid to a snarly middle schooler. “What did you do, switch over to Whopper juniors?” Johnny asks when seeing Anthony. “It’s called a growth spurt dipshit,” he replies. Season 4 also introduces Kenny (Dallas Dupree Young), a new student at Anthony’s school who turns to Cobra Kai after being bullied. By bringing in an even younger generation to the series, it’s also ensuring there is dramatic fodder for potential future seasons.
While Johnny and Daniel purport to want to work together, their fundamental differences remain. Daniel learned from Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) that defense is the way to fight. Don’t start anything, only defend. That’s not how Johnny Lawrence rolls. While Daniel has his students practicing yoga, Johnny is screaming “Don’t be a pussy. Punch him in the face!” at his. Daniel wants to teach them by doing chores (think wax on, wax off) while Johnny thinks they just need to find a good hornet’s nest to kick. “The only thing LaRusso and I have in common is hating Kreese,” Johnny says.
There’s a bit of the series chasing its own tail at work here. How many times can Johnny and Daniel fight and make up? The constant hitting of the reset button is getting a bit tiresome. Still, the things that have made Cobra Kai such a delight remain. The needle drops of classic ‘80s music are outstanding. (“Two Heads are Better Than One” by Power Tool among them.) The montages are fantastic. And the use of clips from the original movies to provide context are deployed judiciously.
The problem is that the deeper the series goes into The Karate Kid oeuvre, the less there is to mine. We are back to the law of diminishing returns. We’ve already had the return of Elizabeth Shue and Johnny’s Cobra Kai buddies. Last season also saw Tamlyn Tomita return as Kumiko. Personally I’m still holding out for Hilary Swank to reprise her role as The Next Karate Kid.
Although there are a few weak links among the young cast, the majority of them are quite good and help the show work on a multigenerational level. Peyton List, who joined the series in the second season, brings a lot of depth to her role as the resident bad girl Tory Nichols. Jacob Bertrand also remains a standout as Hawk, who joined Cobra Kai last season and now must make amends with his friends. And as Hawk’s best friend Demetri, Gianni DeCenzo puts a new spin on the TV nerd cliché.
As for the original generation, Zabka continues to give a nuanced, layered, and hilarious performance as a man who must fight his own demons to do the right thing. Zabka is also so great at delivering Johnny’s over the top lines (“Smooth as a smurf’s ass right?”) without ever turning Johnny into a caricature.
Quite a few storylines are dropped or not completely followed through on, though, which really stands out when you can stream all 10 episodes back to back. (Terry’s arc, for example, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.) But despite my quibbles, I still love Cobra Kai. The show is such an enjoyable romp. I’m happy to spend time with the characters and their karate-loving world no matter how inane the story lines might be. I hope Cobra Kai never dies.
All 10 episodes of Cobra Kai Season 4 premiere December 31st on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. 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).
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