WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Cobra Kai takes place over 30 years after the events of the 1984 All Valley Karate Tournament with the continuation of the inescapable conflict between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
Season 4 finds the Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang dojos joining forces to take down Cobra Kai at the All Valley Under 18 Karate Tournament... and whoever loses must hang up their gi.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
It's hard to think of another TV series out there right now that so consistently and so flagrantly defies expectation as Cobra Kai. Not just in the sense that it has thrown out plenty of delicious plot twists as it has gone along, but in the way that it never had any right to be this good in the first place - and really, really has no business being this good four seasons in.
The two direct sequels to the Karate Kid had enough trouble capturing the magic of the original and the less said about The Next Karate Kid and the Karate Kid remake the better, but somehow, across four seasons and forty-one episodes, what looked on paper to be the most cynical and tired Karate Kid cash grab of them all, hasn't just done justice to the '80s classic, but has far surpassed it. And it makes it look deceptively easy too.
Rather than long-ago running out of steam, the fourth season of Cobra Kai is, incredibly, arguably the best one yet. After the past two seasons on occasion fell prey to a few too many subplots and a bit too much teen soap opera, creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg have given the show a renewed sense of focus and purpose. It still has some teen soap opera, of course, and there are some subplots that seem especially tangential at first, but by directing all of the events of this season towards the fateful showdown in the final two episodes, everything fits together beautifully; be it narratively or thematically.
Take, for example, the at first seemingly completely random subplot involving a now teenage Anthony LaRusso (yup, the show suddenly remembers that the LaRussos have another child!) and his bullying the weedy new kid in his class, Kenny Payne (Dallas Young). Much of the second or third episode is devoted to introducing this random new kid whose only connection to the rest of the plot is his relationship with Cobra Kai's most ignored character and, as we learn by the end, a connection to a bit player from last season.
And yet, by the next episode, his role becomes increasingly clear as Robby Keene decides to mentor him and help him be accepted by his new sensei. Kenny and Anthony have nothing to do with the tournament, and their subplot remains on the periphery throughout, but they both become pivotal players in this season's character arcs for both Robby and Daniel LaRusso - while also being set up as important characters themselves for season 5.
This sort of smart world building and careful attention to character development has long been one of the key ingredients in Cobra Kai's astonishing success. With Eagle Claw dojo arising last season out of Johnny Lawrence and a half dozen of his students turned their back on the increasingly militaristic Cobra Kai dojo, and then joining forces with Miyagi-do, we begin to see new relationships formed, old friendships rekindled (formerly estranged BFFs, Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and Demetri (Gianni DeCenzo) are especially a delight) and, of course, in the case of Daniel and Johnny themselves, bitter rivals and ideological opponents trying to set aside their differences for the common good.
Indeed, though there's plenty of great stuff done with our teenage heroes, anti-heroes and villains, but the greatest spotlight is saved for Johnny and Daniel's always fun relationship - and perhaps even some actual growth Daniel and his endless, sanctimonious arrogance - and the exceptionally intriguing partnership between Kreese and the main baddie from Karate Kid 3, Terry Silver. I won't go into any further detail, but... wow!
But, of course, no matter how brilliantly written the characters are in Cobra Kai or how great the performances are (William Zabka, in particular, remains a revelation four seasons in) or how smart, funny, moving, unexpected, and intricately plotted the writing is, the show probably won't go down in history as one of this era's truly great shows (though it certainly is one of the most popular and well received) or win any major awards because, let's face it, this is goofy stuff. And not just a little goofy. Super, duper, incredulously, sincerely, unironically goofy.
This is a show where dangerous, violent juvenile delinquents almost never get in any actual lasting trouble with the law and are almost always redeemed later on with their most ghastly actions readily forgiven (Peyton List's Tory Nichols gets an especially meaty redemption(?) arc this season). This is a show where karate isn't just cool but is the MAJOR competitive sport - if you could even call it something as humble as a sport -- of the Valley that everyone takes super, super seriously. This is a show where kids don't just gain their black belts virtually immediately, but after just a few months of training, can pull off the sort of moves that 10th dan karate masters who have been practising for decades would probably struggle to pull off. And this is a show where every teenage argument is solved by violent rumbles so extreme that they would have even the Jets and the Sharks calling for restraint.
Though some of this is admittedly punctured by the show's secret weapon, Amanda LaRusso (the always wonderful Courtney Henggeler) who acts as both a voice of reason and hilariously cutting ironic detachment, the remarkable thing is that the show's creators treat all this goofiness with knowing but extremely earnest sincerity. And that's what makes Cobra Kai a work of genius. As the Ramones proved at the height of the prog-rock era, making "smart" look good takes talent but making "dumb" look good takes nothing less than a spark of true creative genius. To put it in TV terms, making a great show around an American presidency or a good man turned drug dealer is one thing, but making a great show around a vampire slayer or a Karate Kid nostalgia trip? Now that's something else entirely.
By committing so thoroughly to the show's silliest extremes every bit as much as to its genuine "quality", the creators of Cobra Kai have somehow made a couple of episodes built around a kid's karate tournament as the TV moment to beat this year. I was all set to give this season a very good but not-quite-exceptional 4-star rating but the final two episodes of the season built around that very karate tournament are so beautifully done, I can't possibly give this season anything but a perfect score.
The karate itself is the best the show has shown to date, no matter how exaggerated - and, saying this as someone who got a brown belt in karate as a teenager, no matter how "wrong" - and the numerous twists and turns throughout the two episodes make for a prime, edge-of-your-seat television experience, but as always, its the beautifully observed character beats that makes it all work.
No spoilers here as there are as many moments of triumph as there are of defeat, loss and intrigue, but it was hard not to literally stand up and applaud as the pitch-perfect season finale drew to a close and even harder not to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness and disappointment that I was going to have to wait, what, six months to a year for more. And if that ain't a sign of brilliant telly, I don't know what is.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: