After a fight between rival karate dojos got out of hand at the end of Season 2, Cobra Kai veteran Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) seeks redemption by helping his young mentee Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) get over a serious injury.
Cobra Kai is a small miracle. It’s an extremely belated TV sequel to and spin-off from the ’80s Karate Kid movies, made for the now defunct YouTube Red premium service, then subsequently picked up by Netflix, where it’s become a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Its half-hour episodes are part mini-action movies, part sitcom, part high-school comedy-drama, all made in a self-consciously kitsch style as if filmed 30 years ago, while also incorporating actual footage from those ’80s movies. (Imagine The Mandalorian suddenly cutting to a scene from The Empire Strikes Back to illustrate a plot point.) And the series stars two fiftysomethings — William Zabka and Ralph Macchio — reprising their roles from the original film franchise and frequently engaging in full-on martial-arts mania. Or at least, their brilliant stunt doubles do.
This is a show so meta, it provides a running commentary about itself. In the Season 3 premiere, for example, when the West Valley High PTA is debating whether to ban karate after the brawl at the end of Season 2, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Footloose, Macchio’s character Daniel LaRusso says, “There’s no need to turn this into a karate Footloose.” Then when Daniel decides to team up with lifelong rival Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) to find Johnny’s estranged son, they start spouting buddy-cop-movie clichés, and Daniel’s wife Amanda’s (Courtney Henggeler) reaction is, “What are you, Tango and Cash?” “Tango and Cash were narcotics detectives,” replies Johnny. “This is totally different.”
There’s something moving about watching these actors getting this unexpected chance to relive golden moments.
Somehow this smart, self-referential schtick never feels smug, mostly because we care about the characters spouting it. The conflict between the ageing karate kickers builds on the strengths of the actors, and the emphasis this time round is as much on Zabka’s dim-witted goofball Johnny as it is on Macchio’s straitlaced LaRusso. The master/pupil relationship in Cobra Kai, designed to echo the one between Daniel and Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid, is that of Johnny and his bullied teen neighbour, Miguel (Xolo Maridueña). When Miguel ends up in hospital, possibly paralysed, Johnny’s hilariously desperate attempts to help his recovery include setting fire to his legs and taking him to a Dee Snider from Twisted Sister heavy-metal concert.
This third season finds even more insanely nonsensical scrapes for Johnny to get into than before, while also providing way more for Macchio’s Daniel to do, especially when he visits Japan, which turns into an excuse to shoehorn in more cameos from the original Karate Kid cast. There’s something moving about watching these actors getting this unexpected chance to relive golden moments from their careers, clearly delighted to be reprising their roles over three decades since we last saw them. And here’s where the show’s fondness for incorporating footage from the films works so well — these vignettes are warmly nostalgic yet tinged with sardonic wit. Much like the whole life-affirming show.
This object lesson on how to make a TV spin-off from an old movie franchise is even more fun third time round, and you don’t even need to be a Karate Kid fan to enjoy it.