Cobra Kai,” which recently dropped its 10-episode third season on Netflix (after two years on YouTube Premium), has come along at a perfect cultural intersection where storytellers give fans what they want and actors don’t hesitate over small-screen roles. What was a pipe dream of “Karate Kid” fans a scant few years ago has become not only reality, but also one of the elite must-watch shows on TV. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
Showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are obviously “KK” fans, but they are also fans of good TV. The season finale’s epic showdown at the Christmastime LaRusso house calls to mind the “Buffy” Season 3 finale in the way Sam (Mary Mouser) and Tory (Peyton List) square off. I also think of “Daredevil” in the way it unleashes such a long, multi-participant fight, living up to the standard of Season 2’s school fight. Composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson pull out all the stops, too; it’s the first time I noticed the show’s score – in a good way. And the soundtrack gives us Journey’s “Open Arms” and a cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
What’s not to like? Well, Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) switches sides a little fast, and Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and Tory are a little too eager to stick with Cobra Kai sensei Kreese (Martin Kove), whose Vietnam War backstory has an epic payoff. Even so, the writing is much better than in the “KK” films – which are elevated by the late Pat Morita and the earnest young Ralph Macchio — while also fitting with the established tone of classy cheese.
Seeing old favorites return has been a hook of “Cobra Kai” from the beginning, and sure, the sheer fact that Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) and Ali (Elisabeth Shue) appear in Season 3 is impressive. But even better is that there are story reasons for all of them to return. And as with Johnny (William Zabka) and Daniel (Macchio), they all look great; this isn’t a case of dusting off creaky, out-of-shape, mostly retired actors. Well, OK, Kreese looks a little creaky at times, but he’s 70-something, and Kove hasn’t forgotten how to play a snarly villain.
It’s giggle-worthy when the smiley Kumiko, from “The Karate Kid Part II,” and the wide-eyed Daniel catch up in Okinawa; when Daniel says it’s like no time has passed, the writers and actors earn that line. “Cobra Kai” could’ve gone into soap opera territory at this point, and in fact it does tease us with Kumiko being single and a reference to the late Miyagi having fallen in love with the same woman twice in a lifetime. But it’s not a soap; Daniel is happily married to Amanda (Courtney Henggeler).
Still, that Daniel-Ali-Johnny love triangle remains, in a way. When everyone reminisces about their high school days (for us, the events of the first “Karate Kid”), it’s exactly as Ali points out: There’s Johnny’s version of events, Daniel’s version, and then the truth. The sloppiness of that film’s narrative inadvertently plays as an appropriately hazy lens.
In addition to being loyal to his wife, Daniel is also a fine dad to Sam, passing on some of Miyagi’s teachings to the next generation (although sometimes I wonder if he remembers he also has a son). Evidence that this show isn’t just fan service: I’m as engaged with the teens’ stories as with their parents’.
Although some are a little stiff, the young actors are generally growing into their roles, especially Xolo Maridueña, who – as Johnny’s top student Miguel – has mastered the bemused comedic reactions to Johnny’s stuck-in-the-’80s traits, such as not knowing that Facebook messages arrive instantaneously, and treasuring his 1988 Swimsuit Issue. Maridueña effectively navigates Miguel’s conveniently quick recovery from a spinal injury. I love the turning point: He taps his foot at a Dee Snider concert. “Cobra Kai” earns even the things it shouldn’t earn.
I and my buddy Shaune matched our schedules to watch one episode per day over 10 days. This allowed for discussion and guesses about Kreese’s backstory in ’Nam, Johnny’s and Daniel’s relationships with the women in their lives, and what bombs would drop in the season finale. That’s one thing about “Cobra Kai” that’s not perfectly timed: Having all 10 episodes arrive at once is too much of a good thing. This series should be savored like the fine piece of art it is.