The Karate Kid has been elevating the underdogs for decades, and the franchise continues to reach absurd new heights with each season of Cobra Kai. This show really shouldn’t be so damn good, considering the central conceit: former champs of rival karate dojos simply cannot get along and expend all of their time, energy, money, and sanity attempting to outdo each other because nothing else matters. There’s so much posturing and virtual chest bumping going on, most of the adults are varying degrees of ridiculous, and the younger generation is simply trying to keep their sh*t together with real-life concerns while ducking the flotsam of the warring adults.
The meaning of the word “underdog” keeps shifting, too, with the plot growing bendier in Season 4 of this action-soap opera-comedy. Things do get ugly during moments, but don’t worry, this show isn’t going “dark and gritty.” Instead, it’s all about keeping the developments believable. And right when you think the show might start wearing out its welcome, well, it proves you wrong. I gotta hand it to creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg for once again staying faithful to the spirit of The Karate Kid franchise. They’ve kept things authentic and real here while staying just serious enough about the characters’ struggles. The overall tone stays light, and this season moves past previous hurdles (including Daniel LaRusso’s spiritual crusade and Johnny Lawrence’s beefs with the world) to revolve around the trainwreck of the senseis.
Those damn senseis. Currently, four of them are pushing to prove that their methods will churn out the mightiest karate menaces in the Valley. Stepping back for a moment, this sounds so silly, and oftentimes, it truly is, but this show wears a ton of heart on its sleeve along with its badassery.
Cobra Kai, of course, started out (back in 2018 at what was YouTube Red) as an underdog in and of itself, as well as being one of many nostalgia-fueled revivals and reboots and retreads. That’s a trend that feels endemic these days, mostly as shots-in-the-dark with few successes and a lot of cringe (look no further than And Just Like That… for a recent example). Yet this show manages to consistently stick landings by adhering to its own formula and no shortage of training montages and intense face-making between Ralph Macchio’s LaRusso and William Zabka’s Lawrence. We’ve already been though the debates about who was truly the bad guy at that All-Valley Tournament in 1984. Seriously, there’s an oral history and Reddit forums and everything else, all to debate the question of whether that crane kick was illegal.
What I’m saying is this: people are invested in this show. There’s a danger in that because further seasons could potentially ruin what already happened, but rest assured that this baby is still treated in a loving manner by all involved. The writers all appear to adore these characters, and the actors are endlessly game, and so on. And as for that crane kick, illegal or not, that decades-old move set up Johnny and Daniel’s vibes for life. The show has done well at making both dudes look buffoonish at various points, but Season 4 goes there by explicitly referencing said kick. It’s a risky move yet one that audiences have also been waiting to see.
How that crane kick plays out now, I won’t spoil, but there’s also this crossroads: Daniel and Johnny must now band together against true evil. That’s where Season 3 ended, with Johnny’s newly minted Eagle Fang dojo teaming up with Daniel’s Miyagi-Do because John Kreese (Martin Kove) once again went mad with power after reclaiming the Cobra Kai dojo. Not only that, but Kreese called in reinforcements in the form of Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), which once again shows that (as with the previous returns of Chozen and Ali) this show’s writers continue to pull from the well when appropriate, and the writers know these characters well.
Almost too well. And I don’t need to tell you too much about this season, really. If you are already a fan, you’ll watch it. If you still haven’t given this show a shot and are on the fence, then the most convincing thing I can say to you is this: Cobra Kai knows what works and keeps doing the thing, so you’ll receive a comforting blanket of stories about characters who stick together, at least against the other team(s). In this round, for example, LaRusso and Lawrence’s opposing teach methods get swapped around and mixed and matched, and there’s much discussion of whether fighting offensively or defensively is more “badass” or “boring,” respectively.
That seemingly simple question fuels an entire season of action and drama. And not only that, but enough of the teens have tweaked their memberships between the three dojos that they’re well equipped at anticipating each other’s fighting styles. It’s like they’re all fighting with themselves, too, both literally and figuratively. It’s fun! And when this acumen reaches the current All Valley Tournament, watch out. In the meantime, I have a few loose ends to mention.
– Ralph Macchio and William Zabka still crush these roles: That’s pretty wild, in and of itself. They’re waxing on and waxing off, and it’s sheer joy to witness. They love this sh*t just as much as the audience, and the show is smart enough to keep them around. There’s no sense of them being shuttled off to pasture. Instead, their proven chemistry continues while remaining firmly entrenched in the younger characters’ arcs.
– The younger actors hold their own. There are too many to adequately mention here, but here are a few of the fantastic performances: Xolo Maridueña still has “future Marvel star” written all over him, and while his role isn’t as meaty this time around, he’s committed to elevating the team of performances; Mary Mouser takes the role of Samantha LaRusso into braver territory; Tanner Buchanan continues his Dylan McKay-lite take as Johnny’s kid, Robby; and Peyton List persists in a standout turn for her portrayal of Tory, who’s got way too much responsibility for a teen while also being one of the fiercest competitors in the community.
– Hawk! We’ll revisit a discussion about Eli Moskowitz’s alter-ego (in an upcoming interview with actor Jacob Bertrand) after this season debuts because dare I say this: while I wouldn’t declare Hawk to transforming into the heart and soul of the series (no one character could do so), he embodies much of the contemporary underdog struggle. Hawk’s troubles run far and wide, and he’s (mostly) on the straight and narrow these days while remaining a complicated dude. There’s a lot coming with him, and viewers will be here for it.
Does that about cover it? Well, other than this show (inexplicably) including too much of the worst character (who’s still sticking out like a misfired sore thumb here), this season manages to level up and pave a road toward the future. Oh, and Cobra Kai recently wrapped on Season 5 shooting and there’s a fresh finale cliffhanger that will have you cracking your knuckles for more. Yes, waiting for more will be hard again, but them’s the breaks with a show this good.
Netflix’s ‘Cobra Kai’ returns with Season 4 on December 31.