On paper, the premise for Cobra Kai seemed absurd. While there was a lot of nostalgia for the original 1984 film, The Karate Kid, its sequels and the 2010 remake showed a very limited amount of stories that could be told within this universe. Bringing back Ralph Macchio to reprise his role as Daniel LaRusso could have felt like a lazy example of a legacy sequel, but Cobra Kai took a different approach by basing the series around his rival, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). By featuring two opposing perspectives, Cobra Kai explores themes of rivalry, victory, worthiness, and success.
Macchio and Zabka received ample opportunities to do some of the best work of their respective careers, but Cobra Kai was also interested in establishing new characters that younger viewers could relate to. By the end of the first season alone, Johnny’s protege, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), Billy’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser), and Johnny’s estranged son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), prove to be just as charismatic as the legacy characters. This collection of characters helped turn the show, against all odds, into a worthy and welcome expansion to the franchise. Every season of Cobra Kai has received enthusiastic reviews, with season 3 earning an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. However, some are undeniably weaker than others, even if the quality has been consistent throughout the show’s run.
Thirty-four years after events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament, a down-and-out Johnny Lawrence seeks redemption by reopening the infamous Cobra Kai dojo, reigniting his rivalry with a now successful Daniel LaRusso.
- Release Date
- May 2, 2018
- Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
5 Season 4 (2021)
Terry Silver’s return
Cobra Kai has definitely become increasingly absurd as it escalates the stakes in each season; while the series examines the emotional consequences that each of the matches and conflicts have on the characters, there’s a suspension of disbelief that the viewer needs to enjoy the series. However, Season 4 nearly “jumps the shark” with the reintroduction of John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) former partner, Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith).
While previous seasons kept the antagonists grounded in a somewhat realistic approach—especially the incredible and villainous John Kresse—Silver is evil to an almost absurd degree, and his story arc feels slightly rushed. Despite showing almost no interest in returning to the world of karate at the beginning of the season, he becomes extremely competitive and intent on taking over the Cobra Kai dojo by the end. Much of the season’s strengths lie in the uneasy alliance between Johnny and Daniel, largely thanks to Zabka and Macchio’s incredible chemistry.
4 Season 2 (2019)
Enter John Kreese
One of Cobra Kai’s better aspects has been how well it has balanced the storylines for the teenagers and the adults. Season 2 did this expertly by creating conflict on two fronts. When Daniel decides to open his dojo, Miyagi-do, to oppose Cobra Kai, he welcomes Robby and Samantha in as his first two students. The rivalries between the two dojos escalate as the teenage characters are forced to choose which of the leaders to follow. While Daniel attempts to reach out to Johnny to settle things amicably, the reintroduction of Kreese into Cobra Kai disturbs him.
Kreese instantly becomes one of the show’s most interesting characters, thanks to his intriguing storyline and Martin Kove’s stellar performance. While on the surface, it looks like he’s nothing but a maniacal villain obsessed with victory, he slowly shows that he truly cares for Johnny and believes in his potential. However, the rivalries between the teenagers do become a little grating at points when it’s clear that the show is just creating melodrama. The season also includes some of Cobra Kai‘s saddest episodes but balances it out with thrilling action and even a few ludicrous moments; the epic school brawl in the season 2 finale is the perfect example of both.
3 Season 5 (2022)
Cobra Kai at its biggest and most ambitious
Season 5 let Cobra Kai refocus on its priorities in the aftermath of Cobra Kai dojo’s victory at the tournament. Both Johnny and Daniel are in the midst of interesting real-life crises; Daniel’s family is beginning to doubt his commitment, and Johnny is on a quest to force Robbie and Miguel to bond. This allows both characters to focus on their strengths and proves the show can succeed outside of its central gimmick.
The slower approach to the early episodes allows the tension to escalate ahead of the showdown with Silver. Season 5 of Cobra Kai has a great balance between adult and teen drama, with Johnny bridging both sides. While there’s more focus on the adult characters this season, it makes sense, considering that the teens are getting more mature. Season 5 features incredible character development for Samantha, who teaches her dad a lesson by combining the skills she’s learned from both him and Johnny. It’s one of the show’s best arcs as it proves the show’s entire thesis: Daniel and Johnny were never that different, and to see it finally proven is a gift for longtime fans.
2 Season 3 (2021)
The Emmys finally show some love to Cobra Kai… as a comedy?
Season 3 of Cobra Kai took the series in a more mature direction after Season 2, which had become a little too melodramatic. Comparatively, Season 3 showed that there were legitimate consequences of focusing only on karate. Miguel’s recovery from his injuries is genuinely moving, as he must mend both his body and his shattered ego. Simultaneously, Johnny regrets bringing back Kreese when his former master begins to take over the Cobra Kai dojo and usurp him of his leadership position.
The final battle allows Johnny and Daniel to finally team up against Kreese, and it’s rewarding to see them finally make amends for a rivalry that started when they couldn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions. The creation of a new, combined dojo gave the show a new focus moving forward as these two radically different characters were forced to combine their teaching methods. It’s no wonder season 3 of Cobra Kai received the most mainstream attention, including a much-deserved Emmy nomination. And while its placement in the comedy category remains puzzling, at least it received the recognition.
1 Season 1 (2018)
Proving the naysayers wrong
Cobra Kai proved within its first season that it wasn’t interested in simply trotting out nostalgic references to The Karate Kid to entice audiences that grew up with the original films. In fact, the show didn’t require the viewer to have anything but a passing familiarity with the characters. Instead, it focuses on telling an effective story of a guy who peaked in high school trying to find a new purpose in life.
Johnny is an effective character on his own, as he begins as a washed-up loser searching for meaning. His loss to Daniel all those years ago essentially gave him an excuse not to move forward with his life, and by restarting Cobra Kai, he’s essentially trying to give children the chance to succeed in a way he never could. The focus on Johnny made Cobra Kai’s first season surprisingly compelling and even relatable, and the narrower focus exemplified the show’s best qualities. It was an effective experiment that proved legacy sequels can take an entirely different approach from their predecessors and still thrive.
All seasons of Cobra Kai are available to stream on Netflix.
Watch on Netflix
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