With Season 2 (April), which recently wrapped its free-to-all run on YouTube Premium, “Cobra Kai” has secured its spot as the best continuation of a 1980s premise (a surprisingly robust genre lately). The safe, cheesy and sometimes flat-out bad (but yes, we loved it anyway) filmmaking of the “Karate Kid” trilogy has given way to a confident, funny, epic and ultimately heart-wrenching TV series.
Season 2 doesn’t shift focus away from the rivalry between Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Miyagi-Do’s Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), but it does let the teens step into the spotlight more than in Season 1. Sam LaRusso (Mary Mouser) and Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) – Johnny’s son — strike up a tentative romance, and a love quadrangle emerges with bad girl Tory (former Disney kid Peyton List) joining Cobra Kai and taking up with Sam’s ex, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña).
It all comes to a head in an absolutely epic battle in the hallways and stairwells of West Valley High on the first day of school in the Season 2 finale, “No Mercy.” “Daredevil” is done, at least for the time being, so “Cobra Kai” has firmly taken up the mantle of the best hallway-fight TV show. Including long unbroken shots, the sequence features not only the payoff of Sam-versus-Tory, but lots of side fights, which range from cute (two nerds squaring off) to hilariously awesome (Paul Walter Hauser’s Stingray – the one adult Cobra Kai student — wading into the fray, fresh from his doomed interview to be a security guard).
Speaking of funny, the low-key thread of Johnny’s old-schoolness continues to bat 1.000. The joke of Johnny being more stuck in 1985 than Bowling For Soup has long since been established, but it remains grin-worthy. Among my favorites of Season 2: He tries to find a Trapper Keeper for his son, he calls his voicemail a “smartphone answering machine,” he thinks his date is talking about the “Patriots” rather than the “patriarchy,” and he says he already owns the rights to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” – the tape is in his car.
His top student, Miguel, has started to figure Johnny out, like when he sets up Johnny’s dating app profile. “What kind of women are you interested in?” After an exasperated look from Johnny, Miguel quickly answers his own question: “Super-hot babes.”
One of my favorite moments among Johnny’s romantic travails is when he hits it off with a stuck-in-the-’80s chick who uses his own pickup method on him in “Glory of Love” (2.8): She “accidentally” bumps into him and then buys him a beer. Unfortunately – but understandably — he only has eyes for Miguel’s mom, Carmen (Vanessa Rubio). But this does set up a great dream sequence where his fantasy with Carmen is in the style of a hair-metal music video.
Season 2 sometimes puts a hat on the silliness of the movie trilogy, like when Daniel notes with exasperation the fact that Kreese (Martin Kove) keeps coming back from the dead. By season’s end, Kreese is more of a thorn in Johnny’s side than Daniel, and we essentially have three factions for Season 3: Kreese’s Cobra Kai; Daniel’s Miyagi-Do; and Johnny, somewhere in the middle.
I love how Johnny and Daniel reach a mutual appreciation, if not a friendship, spurred on by Daniel’s wife and Johnny’s date in “Pulpo” (2.9). Certainly, their views of karate’s values are much closer than either of them is to Kreese’s, and I can almost imagine a team-up. But with the promise of Elisabeth’s Shue’s Ali returning in Season 3, a bitter love triangle is more likely.
“Cobra Kai” has been an amazing opportunity for the “Karate Kid” cast to not merely resurrect their characters but to vastly improve on them. And it goes beyond Johnny, Daniel and Kreese. In the poignant “Take a Right” (2.6), Johnny goes on a road trip with his childhood buddies (as seen in 1984’s “Karate Kid”), including Tommy (Rob Garrison), who is dying from cancer. Garrison died from cancer months later in real life; what a wonderful tribute this show gives him with this episode, which even features one last (cheesy but great) bar fight for the old buddies.
As entertaining as the fight choreography often is, the show’s examinations of the competing philosophies of karate get particularly weighty in the finale, when another tragedy occurs. Amanda LaRusso’s (Courtney Henggeler) demand that her husband and daughter drop karate from their lives is not gonna fly, of course.
But “No Mercy” has something to say about the danger of escalating violence. Karate can be a force for good, and yet – strictly speaking — that school-hall violence would not have occurred without widespread karate knowledge among this L.A. suburb’s teen populace. (Granted, it might’ve been a gun fight otherwise.) Season 3 could be about Daniel and other characters rediscovering Mr. Miyagi’s principles and applying them to the modern age.
“Cobra Kai” is listed as a comedy on IMDB, and there are enough chuckles and goofy moments that I can’t argue with that categorization. But I care about what happens to these people going forward, even if some of them are stuck in the 1980s. That’s what makes “Cobra Kai” a particularly badass achievement.