Set 30 years after Danny Lerusso (Ralph Macchio) defeated former school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in the All-Valley Karate Championships in California, Cobra Kai sees Zabka down on his luck, divorced, estranged from his son and unemployed. But when he uses karate one night to defend a put-upon kid (Xolo Maridueña), he’s soon finding a new calling in life and reopening the karate school that caused him so much pain as a kid – Cobra Kai. Could he put the mistakes of the past behind him and learn from his failures? And would the man who once defeated him be willing to forgive and forget?
One of TMINE’s Top 14 shows of 2018, the first season of Cobra Kai was a sort of American Flashman for the streaming age. It managed to be faithful to the original and its characters, referring back constantly in flashback to the most famous moments of the first movie and its sequels and embodying their philosophy and attitude to karate.
Yet at the same time, it was clearly a show that knew it would have two audiences. The first is the standard youthful YouTube viewer who only ever saw the movie on reruns, if at all, and would be less interested in Macchio and Zabka than their students and children, their relationships and rivalries, and their experiences as they followed the paths walked by their elders 30 years earlier. The second is a middle-aged audience who saw the movie when it first came out, have had children of their own, and know full well that life’s no simple parable of good and evil. Bullies become bullies for a reason and the oppressed can become oppressors, and heroes villains – and vice versa.
Cobra Kai – season twoCobra Kai and Impulse were the first/only two incontestably good shows produced by YouTube’s premium ‘Red’ service – subsequently renamed YouTube Premium and soon to not be premium at all. It therefore wasn’t a big surprise when both was renewed for a second season. The question was whether a second season could be as good as the first.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m happy to report that Cobra Kai‘s second season is every bit as good as its first. Mild spoilers for both the first and second season after the jump. And in the trailer.
New old facesGiven that Martin Kove made a brief cameo appearance at the end of the first season, it’s no surprise that he figures heavily throughout the second season. Indeed, if the first season was about reliving the past and seeing if you can do better a second time around, the second is about whether you can then put your past behind you and create a new future – with Kove being the main anchor on Zabka’s doing that.
As before, we have the rivalries between Macchio and Zabka, with Macchio now opening his own karate school to take on what he perceives as Zabka’s bad teaching. Macchio’s rage against Zabka becomes all-consuming, putting his car dealership – and marriage – at risk as he spends too much time teaching the ways of ‘true karate’, when he should be selling instead.
Meanwhile, Zabka is merely trying to make a living. He sees Macchio as the enemy, someone who won’t put the past behind them and is intent on sabotaging him because he’s a dick.
However, as most teachers do, Zabka continues to find that teaching teaches him valuable lessons and is soon modifying the Cobra Kai. Sure, be bad ass but don’t be dishonourable. Have no mercy… most of the time, but use your head to work out when you should have mercy. Kove, of course, has other ideas, feeling that the Cobra Kai values are being diluted. But even he isn’t the pantomime villain of the piece.
Those rivalries spill over into the younger generation, splitting apart former friends and threatening relationships. The love triangle of the first season also becomes a love rectangle as new girl Peyton List joins Cobra Kai, causing Maridueña’s head to turn, Mouser to get jealous and Buchanan to get even more jealous. There’s also some interesting class rivalry between the poor List and rich Mouser, inverting Zabka and Macchio’s relationship in the movie.
The next generationThe second season of Cobra Kai is surprisingly thematically rich. For the most part, it treads a reasonably linear course, with Zabka slowly growing as person, with the occasional lapse (“Yes, we accept both girls and boys in classes… Gender what?”).
There’s an oddly touching episode on that course as Zabka is reunited with his friends from the original movie (Rob Garrison, Tony O’Dell, Ron Thomas) and we learn how they’ve changed as well.
Mirroring Zabka’s journey is Macchio’s, as he begins to realise that his concerns are affecting kids as well, and he tries to recapture the spirit of karate for himself, too. And the kids also have to learn that maybe they need to get along more, too.
But the second season is as keen as the first to show that real life is messy and good intentions also need good timing. Kove’s black-and-white ‘no mercy’ message is initially shown to be the problem that Zabka needs to outgrow, but by the time he has and he and Macchio have almost resolved their differences and rebuilt their lives, it’s too late – and Kove is actually shown to be right as a result.
Indeed, the final episode, despite its full on Grease-level fight/dance is a surprisingly dark piece apparently in complete opposition to the rest of the season but which has been building on themes hiding in the background for the previous episodes. It points out, just as The Karate Kid did, that martial arts aren’t games and that if you forget that, people will get hurt.
It’s a bold choice and it’s one that gives the show much-needed grit after a season that’s relatively light and often comedic.
Cobra Kai strike lastWe do, at this point, have to say something about the karate. On the spiritual side, Cobra Kai does a relatively decent job of ensuring that the messages of karate are understood – it should just be for defence, but hopefully shouldn’t be used at all. It also highlights the difficulties of running a martial arts club, although I didn’t see much mention of insurance – that’s got to come up some time, surely?
But on the stunt side, there’s a definite issue. The Karate Kid was fine for what it was in the 80s and even early 90s. I mean, sure, you did have Raven being moderately good.
But you could still get away with this in Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.
But the rest of the TV world has moved on since the 80s and decent martial arts fights are available to everyone who wants them:
Meanwhile, Cobra Kai gives us this.
Martin Kove’s 73, so we can give him a pass. The kids I can almost excuse. They are kids, after all.
But not quite. I mean doesn’t every kid go to karate classes from the age of 4 these days? Black Sash – created and exec produced by The Karate Kid‘s writer Robert Mark Kamen – was doing better ‘kids martial arts club’ fight scenes 16 years ago in 2003.
And Taylor Lautner was up to this in BBC Three’s Cuckoo, FFS. BBC Three!
If they could do it, so can Cobra Kai.
Worse still, Macchio’s not that old and he was the karate kid. What has he been up to for 30 years? And it’s not like Zabka is any better.
All I can say is that if you’re watching Cobra Kai for decent karate, you’ll be bang out of luck.
Not for the karateBut if you want to watch some well drawn characters, some nuanced and sometimes comedic storytelling and the actors who played some seminal roles in your childhood faithfully recreate them 30 years later, season two of Cobra Kai is certainly worth watching. I think, on balance, while season one had slightly more to it than season two, season two is slightly better, if only for Kove and that final episode.
Season three has already been commissioned and if you’ve been wondering where Elisabeth Shue has been all this time, she could be on her way soon, judging by the final episode of season two. It just gets better and better doesn’t it?
So what are you waiting for? Oh yes. Stupid YouTube Premium pricing. Fingers crossed, that won’t be a problem for too long.