Although I’m not one for nostalgia in my entertainment, something drew me to Cobra Kai and to subsequently write a Cobra Kai review. It’s no surprise for me to hear that I’m not the only one; Cobra Kai seems to be doing better than every show on Netflix and Hulu. Not only does Cobra Kai have an intriguing premise that goes against type — the old rival and schoolyard bully has a comeback — but it’s also consistently hilarious and has great characterization of Johnny Lawrence.
After losing to Daniel LaRusso in the original Karate Kid, Johnny goes on a downward spiral for the next 35 years. He’s a hard-drinking anti-PC loser who’s attitude and demeanor makes him the most realistic Trump supporter in television (sorry Rosanne). The series starts out following Johnny’s 90 degree turn to a slightly more likable person, as he trains an immigrant protege and seethes over the success of his former rival. But as the series progresses, the cast inevitably becomes more ensemble, and increased focus is given to Daniel LaRusso as he trains his own protege.
For me though, the most interesting part of the show was the focus on Johnny Lawrence. While Ralph Macchio has had a bit more of a post-Karate Kid career, William Zabka hasn’t done anything nearly as high profile. Back in 2003, he wrote and produced an Academy Award nominated Czech short film called Most after training to be a filmmaker. He also had a recurring role in season 9 of How I Met Your Mother and a bit part in Hot Tube Time Machine. He also notably directed and starred in a music video about him never getting over the role of Johnny Lawrence about 10 years before the making of Cobra Kai.
As far as second acts go, that’s not bad for the bully of a beloved 80’s franchise. It also makes the focus on Johnny Lawrence that much more interesting given that his real-life counterpart has also been overshadowed. But where this series started to fall apart for me was its over-reliance on the Karate Kid narrative.
Of course, Johnny Lawrence needed to start up his old rivalry with Daniel LaRusso and have their respective proteges fight each other. That much made sense within the context of the plot, as well as the context of the overall Karate Kid narrative. After all, Cobra Kai is a continuation in that it’s about two aging men who can’t get over their glory days, and think that they can only define themselves by their pasts.
But where the series started to lose me is when the Cobra Kai kids became the villains of their own story. Led by Miguel — who was a better character than he had any right to be — the Cobra Kai dojo didn’t just fight dirty in the tournament, but we were also meant to actively root against them. Given that the focus has been on Johnny Lawrence becoming a father figure to Miguel at the expense of his own son, it was an odd tonal choice to cast Miguel in this way in the final act.
What made this choice disappointing to me was how invested I felt in the relationship between Johnny Lawrence and Miguel, and how the season’s final act didn’t seem to follow through on this. While it was a great choice to have Johnny Lawrence’s son fight Johnny Lawrence’s biological son, we never get a sense of how Johnny really feels about this during the tournament. In other words, the fight isn’t about Johnny Lawrence at all, but about Johnny’s son and Daniel LaRusso forging their own bond.
While I appreciate setting up Daniel LaRusso and his protege as a foil to Johnny, it didn’t seem to follow the theme of the season as well as I would have liked. Still, it’s great that this exists at all, and although I’m not a huge fan of the original Karate Kid, I think that Cobra Kai was much better than most of us anticipated and is a worthy entry in the reboot/legacy pop culture landscape we have created.
At the least, I enjoyed the ending better than that of the recent Samurai Jack legacy season, especially because we’ll be getting another one here. Still, it would have fit the season more to keep the final fight focused on Johnny more, if only to help us reconsider the Karate Kid narrative and Johnny’s role in it. He may not be an Ivan Drago, but Johnny is far more sympathetic and I find myself rooting for him — even when I wasn’t supposed to.