The biggest surprise of YouTube Premium’s original series Cobra Kai was how successful it was in capitalizing on nostalgia for the Karate Kid without relying on it entirely. The return of original cast members Ralph Macchio and William Zabka for a half-hour TV series on a fledgling streaming service initially looked as though it was going to be a tongue-in-cheek goof on the ‘80s coming-of-age hit that launched a franchise. Instead of clowning around with crane kicks and fence-painting training montages the series took a sincere interest in the lives of Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (Zabka), and how a single kick to the face appeared to have overwhelmingly influenced the next 30 years of their lives.
But in the case of Cobra Kai, sincerity doesn’t translate to humorlessness. In fact, the show’s willingness to lean into comedy and occasionally poke fun at both Johnny and Daniel is perhaps its saving grace. The push-pull of two competing martial arts philosophies, headed up by two very different men, could have resulted in an overbearingly moralistic or cloyingly sweet message, but as the series (and creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald) has demonstrated from the beginning, it’s very concerned with striking the right balance with regard to it core philosophies without resorting to schmaltz to get its point across.
That’s not to say Cobra Kai isn’t aware the sometimes awkward sincerity prevalent in the sports genre, and certainly the franchise from which it was spawned. There’s still plenty of that here, especially in season 2, as Daniel’s feud with Johnny has escalated considerably following Miguel Diaz’s (Xolo Maridueña) dirty win over Johnny’s son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan), in the All Valley Tournament at the end of season 1. It’s now dojo vs. dojo — or Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-Do — in an all-out war that may or may not see a bunch of kids’ futures as collateral damage.
Through it all, though, Cobra Kai maintains a healthy sense of humor, and its secret weapon is Zabka’s performance as Johnny, a man so stuck in the past he’s living an almost Rip Van Winkle-like existence. Between his morning routine of chugging cans of Coors and eating Slim Jims, utter un-wokeness, and ongoing relationship with ‘80s rock, Johnny Law is a light snack for today’s “call out culture,” a man just waiting to be “canceled.” Though the series dangles the villain bait with regard to Johnny, it doesn’t take it. Instead, the ostensible protagonist of the series becomes a prime example of season 2’s major through-line: the question of second chances and who, if anyone, deserves one.
To answer that, Cobra Kai brings Johnny’s old sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) back from the dead. Instead of dying in the wake of losing the Cobra Kai dojo following the events of Karate Kid, the steely ex-solider gets a re-engineered story, one in which he re-enlisted and did some black ops work in the intervening decades. Whether there’s any truth to what Kreese tells Johnny is almost beside the point; the guy epitomizes not only the notion of second chances, but also the season’s other overarching theme of fathers (or father figures) and how their influence shapes the future of their sons. Or in the case of Johnny and Daniel, how a pair of mentors shaped the lives of their surrogate children.
The series allows this to play out in a variety of ways, building on the dynamic between Daniel and his own children Samantha (Mary Mouser) and Anthony (Griffin Santopiero), as well as his Miyagi-like relationship with the estranged son of his sworn enemy, Robby. Similarly, Johnny’s relationship with Miguel continues to evolve, as the recently crowned All Valley Karate champ has to learn a little humility, and also that his sensei is a flawed human being who’s learning how to be a role model as he goes along.
Of the series’ parallel storylines, the Johnny/Miguel relationship is the more engaging one, and not only because being the “bad guy” is more fun, but because Cobra Kai has positioned Johnny as the character with the most to lose and the most to gain. That might seem impossible considering where he was when the series began, but everything that Johnny has, everything that means something to him, has only come to him since the series began. And the biggest threat to what Johnny’s built isn’t Daniel LaRusso and his Miyagi-Do; it’s Kreese and Johnny’s own baser instincts.
As the season attempts to demonstrate through the escalation of the rivalry between the two dojos and their respective sensei, bad people aren’t born, they’re made. This way of thinking is what turns Johnny Lawrence into a surprisingly and satisfyingly compelling character, one who is wrestling with the poor choices he’s made in the past, even as his current circumstances threaten to push him down a similar path. That Cobra Kai can pull that off, all while being an entertaining mix of comedy and drama in a half-hour package is another example of how the series continues to defy expectations.
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Cobra Kai season 2 will be available to stream beginning April 24 exclusively on YouTube Premium.