Review: In season three, karate soap opera 'Cobra Kai' finds new mojo
Courtesy of Netflix
I must admit being late to “The Karate Kid” party, having just recently visited the 1984 classic for the first time as to be ready for season three of the highly recommended “Cobra Kai.” Over the course of one weekend, I engulfed myself in “Karate Kid” lore, and binged both seasons of “Cobra Kai” and saw why everyone loved the series. It’s ripe with prime nostalgia, brings back beloved characters in interesting ways, and serves old fans (who, unlike me, grew up watching Ralph Macchio and William Zabka duke it out) while enticing new ones. I quickly learned that “Cobra Kai” was no prestige drama (how boring it would be if that were the case) but it carves out a brand new subgenre: karate soap opera.
The first two seasons, like the brand new and decent third entry, are extremely cheesy. There’s dozens of subplots, over the top villains, and loads of bare knuckle brawls (sometimes, in broad daylight on a Tuesday). It’s borderline laughable what creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg cook up, but it’s the commitment of series regulars Macchio and Zabka that keep season three of “Cobra Kai” floating.
Though not as memorable (or inspired) as the inaugural season, season three, which picks up after the bombshell cliffhanger of season two that left Miguel (Xolo Mariduena) on life support, still packs an emotional punch and tries to tidy up loose, unresolved conflicts, while introducing new characters and fan favorites (thank goodness for flashbacks or else folks who haven’t seen “Part III” in two decades might be lost).
But whereas the first two seasons of “Cobra Kai” were keen on riding the goodwill of “The Karate Kid,” season three - originally a YouTube Red series now setup at Netflix - tries to find some mojo of its own. Some rivalries, like the one brewing between Demitri (Gianni Dacenzo) and Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) really start to gain momentum. Whereas before it seemed like Dacenzo was getting the short end of the narrative leash, here his character’s growth proves rewarding.
Equally, Mariduena gets to show a wider emotional range than we’re used to, having to relearn the basic elements of life and still remaining paralyzed below the waist. Considering he’s stuck on the sideline - allowing his dojo brethren to step up and kick ass - Miguel and his former sensi, Johnny Lawrence (Zabka) are given ample time to reconnect and find that spark desperately missing from season two. Especially as Johnny helps Miguel through the rehabilitation process, and Miguel helps Johnny flourish on social media.
Kreese (Martin Kove) - who drove a wedge between the two - comes back and gets a fleshed out backstory around his time served in Vietnam (hinting at his villainous roots). You can’t imagine anyone but Kove playing the role, but the character is written in a manner that’s so devious, he should start growing a mustache to twirl. Why anyone would train under a man who encourages violence that results in serious injuries is beside me. “Cobra Kai” requires a fair amount of disbelief, but the biggest is how nobody in the community - including the police and township leaders - bat an eye at Kreese’s teaching methods. You’d be a moron to believe him.
On the other end of the spectrum, the writers have milked Daniel LaRusso’s character in about a dozen different ways and bless Macchio for staying committed to the role, but his arc in season three isn’t necessarily memorable. His main venture this time is traveling back to Okinawa, allowing the creators to reintroduce old “Karate Kid” staples Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto). You’d think after 35 years folks would move on from old, childhood beef, but not Chozen who is eager to exact revenge. It’s the weakest and most unnecessary subplot offered throughout the 10 episodes, even if the much anticipated standoff between the old foes is somewhat rewarding.
Other series regulars, Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan) and Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) are left to battle their own demons. The former, stuck in juvie standing up to schoolyard bullies, the later still reeling from the trauma of season two, are aggressively fine, but with everything happening in the background, their journeys can be more impeding than useful. Especially Robbie who - despite getting into some decent prison fights - mostly just stews at how everyone in his life has wronged him. Perhaps there will be more from him to do in the inevitable (and confirmed) fourth season.
Overall, season three of “Cobra Kai” is a fitting entry into the series framework that continues to establish itself for terrific fight choreography and stunt work. Macchio and Zabka are certainly at the top of their games along with a slew of memorable proteges. It’s still the same cheesy show you’ve devoured for two seasons, except the emotional stakes have risen just enough to keep us coming back for more.
All episodes of COBRA KAI season three debut on Netflix Friday, January 1st 2021