Cobra Kai Season 1: Good Fun or Toxicity Incarnate? (Review)

The first two seasons of Cobra Kai just hit Netflix and, to mark the occasion, I thought I’d revisit the Karate Kid franchise to see how well its aged over the years. I’d checked out Cobra Kai a few years ago when it first debuted on YouTube Premium (or YouTube Red or whatever it’s called this week) and at the time, I thought it was good fun with some strange/toxic messaging and a bit too much of an emphasis on the past.

Several years later, I think it’s safe to say that my opinion of the show hasn’t changed much. Cobra Kai is a really, fun show, but it’s just one that can’t decide whether it wants to push the Karate Kid franchise forward or whether it wants to rehash the movies as much as it can, albeit with drone footage in its training sequences.

For those unfamiliar with Cobra Kai, here’s a basic rundown of the plot: Some 30 years after The Karate Kid, former high school bully Johnny Lawerence is depressed and living a sad, solitary existence in a run down apartment. After saving his new teenage neighbor Miguel from some high school bullies, he decides to open a new Cobra Kai dojo in order to teach Miguel and some of his classmates karate. Meanwhile his old high school rival, Daniel LaRusso, catches wind of this and (in a seemingly PTSD induced rage) does everything in his power to make sure Cobra Kai leaves All-Valley forever.

Cobra Kai is an interesting inversion of the original series. By primarily following Sensei Lawrence, it adds a lot of nuance to a character that was painfully shallow in the original movie. Cobra Kai’s Johnny Lawrence is still everything he was in The Karate Kid but, to this shows credit, he’s also played played for laughs a lot. This Johnny Lawrence acts like he never got out of the 80s; he doesn’t believe in allergies, is skeptical about the dangers of concussions, and doesn’t know what Facebook is. In a word, he’s ignorant. But all of this is played for laughs in the series; Johnny’s ignorance is never glorified and is very much a running joke. It’s a great movie, honestly, and works wonderfully at humanizing a character that had spent over three decades being paper-thin. It’s also interesting to see how (over the course of the first season), we see the beginnings of Johnny coming of age as a person, as he tries to get back onto his feet and grow into being a (slightly more) considerate teacher for his students. All of this is balanced really well by William Zabka, who has a lot of fun with the role’s comedic needs while also playing the character with a lot of pathos. Johnny can be a little hard to handle sometimes, but he’s usually a bit of a scene stealer for me, as much as I hate his project bad-ass (for all those Always Sunny fans) ideology.

Because Johnny is the main focus of this series Daniel LaRusso, the former protagonist of The Karate Kid, takes up the mantle of being his counterweight/the closest thing to an antagonist in the first season. Daniel, now happily married and with two kids, basically goes out of his way to try and ruin Johnny’s life. Now granted, that’s not to say that Daniel is totally unlikable in this series (he gets a lot of leeway, given how many times Johnny and his friends nearly killed him in high school), but he does act painfully irrationally towards Johnny for opening a dojo. I mean, Daniel literally has flashbacks to stock footage of Johnny and his friends beating the crap out of him every time someone mentions Cobra Kai. And, while I’m not blaming the guy for having trauma, some of the stuff Daniel does to Johnny throughout the first season definitely comes across as cruel. Even his wife agrees with this sentiment, often calling out how out of his mind Daniel is acting. Ralph Macchio is great as an adult Daniel though and doesn’t miss a beat in his return to the iconic character.

Surrounding Johnny/Daniels bickering and feuding is a roster of students/teen characters that are… honestly? Kinda annoying. For all of the over the top fun that Johnny and Daniel bring to the table, a fair amount of the good-will they generate is lost on cliche and poorly written teen plots. I understand why it’s there and appreciate that it’s there with some function to the story, but also need to call out weak storytelling when I see it. Of the teen characters in this show, the only ones I could stand were Miguel (for at least half of the first season) and Robbie. For a lot of the characters, you aren’t really supposed to like them; they’ve been actively militarized by a bunch of Cobra Kai nonsense, after all. But for the characters you are supposed to like, there’s so much writing that oversimplifies being a teenager that it’s hard to do more than roll your eyes at them.

Speaking of that Cobra Kai nonsense; it’s kinda crazy how much fun this show is to watch when several of its characters are basically being dropped into an arc of learning how to be a bunch of jackasses. Without diving too deep/far into this (especially because I get that this is a the first time a lot of people are seeing this show, thanks to Netflix), I know that this is being done to set up a larger story, as well as to justify future seasons of the show, but with no end in sight for this show, I can’t help but hope that the payoff will eventually be worth the wait.

My biggest complaint with Cobra Kai though is how much it leans into the original movies. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of nostalgia/pandering, it’s simply giving the people that have stuck with The Karate Kid for 30 years a bit of what they want. But it’s the way it leans into the original movies, as well as too often it leans into them that’s a problem. I can’t help but be bothered by the seemingly constant cutting to the original movies in the show, there’s something that feels (and I hate to use this word) lazy about it. One of the great lessons I was taught about storytelling (thanks degree that I don’t use enough!) was to show, don’t tell. And while the show is literally showing us glimpses of the past in a bid to explain its character’s motivations, it’s using it as a way of telling something. Does that make any sense? I suppose I’m trying to say that I would’ve preferred less flashbacks and more of a focus on characters showing how their experiences shaped their worldview back in the present.

Overall, Cobra Kai is totally worth a watch. There are a ton of moments that I found laugh-out-loud funny in first season and, if my memory holds up, the second season is more of the same. If you, even remotely, have any nostalgia towards The Karate Kid, then Cobra Kai is definitely worth your time!

If you liked this review and wanna hear our thoughts on the original Karate Kid, feel free to check out our review of it, as well as our podcast episode on the movie!

We also have a full episode version of our episode about The Karate Kid over on our YouTube channel, if that’s more your speed:

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