Cobra Kai is probably the most nostalgic show on television right now. It’s a kind of sequel to the original Karate Kid movies, and it stars Ralph Macchio as underdog turned winner Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and William Zabka as martial arts competitor Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), both of whom are still fixated on the events of those films in their middle years.
During the first two seasons, both become senseis at rival dojos, pulling their adolescent students, including their own children, into the fight that has fuelled their decades-long rivalry. Both of them spend a lot of time reminiscing about or savoring memories from their childhood. There are a lot of exciting battle scenes, corny dialogue, and generic ’80s pop music.
The show’s excessive sentimentality and paradoxical focus on the need to break free from the constraints of the familiar are the most fascinating aspects of it, as well as the most perplexing, especially in this season. It’s difficult to take the “don’t live in the past” theme seriously because Cobra Kai doesn’t really practice what it preaches.
This issue is exemplified by the way Johnny Lawrence is depicted. One of Cobra Kai’s distinguishing features is that it strives for more depth in its characterizations than the Karate Kid films did. Johnny, who was a villain in The Karate Kid, is a jerk in Cobra Kai, but the show is careful to show his gentler side and ability to improve.
Similarly, while Daniel seems to be the more stable and measured of the two, he can also be petty and condescending. Johnny’s attitudes and actions are not endorsed by the series, and his disconnection from modern reality and old-school attitudes often make him the punchline of Cobra Kai’s jokes.
Cobra Kai goes out of its way to show us both sides of the story. However, determining precisely what it believes to be the truth is difficult. The show empathizes with its adolescent protagonists almost as much as it does with its adult characters, and it praises them for being more progressive in certain respects.
But, as much as it encourages us to embrace the present and the future, Cobra Kai repeatedly reminds us that things were better in the 1980s, often very literally. The third season ends with a confrontation between Kreese on one side and a partnered-up Johnny and Daniel on the other, suggesting that the show will eventually veer away from that mentality in season four.
Kreese attempts to convince Johnny to return to Cobra Kai, where Johnny’s son Robby is now under Kreese’s tutelage before Johnny and Daniel join forces. “We’ll melt this whole snowflake generation,” Kreese says if the three of them work together. (This show’s dialogue is not subtle.)