7 things to know about ‘Cobra Kai’ before you binge the Netflix series

Dan Buffa

No one asked for another “Karate Kid” sequel. 

Honestly. Nearly twenty years after the third and final film ended (“Karate Kid 3” scored a 15% on Rotten Tomatoes), creator Josh Heald introduced “Cobra Kai” to the world. But this chapter picked up with the trials and tribulations of the bully, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and not the hero from the trilogy of films, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).

After taking the foot to the face from the underdog in the first film, Lawrence retreated completely in life, becoming an alcoholic and washing out of multiple jobs. LaRusso went the other way, marrying a beautiful woman, having a couple kids, and owning a very successful car dealership in the Valley. But heroes and villains don’t get special walks in life; they suffer the same growing pains that every adult in the world runs into sooner or later. And the show has fun with that process, refusing to paint either lead character in a glowing light.

Believe me, the television show could have survived solely on constant Lawrence-LaRusso putdowns, but there’s additional layers of intrigue that are investigated to good measure here. And it’s working. As of Jan. 2021, 73 million Netflix households had watched the three seasons.  Let’s dig into a few before you decide to click PLAY, or maybe after you finish this, the need to revisit returns.

Yes, you need to watch the movies first!

Heald, along with his writers and directors, weave in a lot of footage and storylines from the original films, especially sequences with the now deceased Pat Morita, who played the internationally-adored Mr. Miyagi. The morals and lessons from those screenplays decades ago are taken out and refurbished here, so a viewer may feel lost seeing all this nostalgia and past turmoil, without knowing how it fits into the central story. Take a ride with these characters a few forehead creases and cheek wrinkles ago, so you’ll have your bearings when the pilot begins.

Mr. Miyagi’s Zen master is all over the show

The most bittersweet aspect of this series is the missing presence of the 1980’s most iconic characters. Mr. Miyagi was the real star of the movies, but Morita tragically died of kidney failure in 2005. Thankfully, Heald and company soulfully fill in the story and aesthetic here with a lot of Miyagi. He hangs over much of the series, especially when the evil manipulator, John Kreese (Martin Kove), shows up to twist Johnny’s mind again and mess with LaRusso’s head and town. Those two had as much of a history as the two younger guys, and it’s dealt with in very interesting ways. Some of the best moments of the series happen at Mr. Miyagi’s safe karate school. I almost bought one of those plants to tend to.

Jacob Bertrand’s Hawk will be a character you love to hate, sort of

I would call this character the new “Johnny Lawrence” of the series, someone whom Kreese can turn to the dark side. Bertrand’s ascension from a nerd with a birth scar on his face ruining his life and popularity to one of Lawrence’s finest students. But talent and sensibility play funny games with each other in a young man’s life, something Zabka’s former wonder boy knows very well. Bertrand, rocking a mohawk and switching sides constantly throughout the series, is a thrill to watch. The bullied one who became a bully himself??

Middle age is mocked beautifully

One of the best, and hilarious, elements of the series is the inability of Lawrence to conform to the modern world. He doesn’t use social media, thinks a headshot means shirts aren’t required, and forgets that a laptop needs to be plugged in to work the next day. All he knows is to strike first, drink a Coors Banquet beer next, and say something derivative from the 80’s to finish it off. It’s like growing older with the antagonist, seeing how his life really did fall apart, but the glow of redemption sits ahead. Zabka leans into this very well, like an analog lion who can fight all he wants, but he’s still lost in a digital world. The little things in this series add up to entertainment. As heavy as the Miyagi stuff gets at times, the humor is never far behind.

Courtney Henggeler steals the show

As LaRusso’s wife and always the smartest mind in the room, Henggeler spends a good portion of the series mocking our two protagonists and pointing out the absurdity of the violence that develops quickly in town with Lawrence and Kreese back pushing Daniel’s buttons. Her comic timing and ability to cut the tension in a room, or tell a grown man to act like one, is priceless here.

The fights (and stunts for that matter) are relentless and violent without being bloody

Suffice to say, there’s an extended battle royal at the high school at the end of the second season that counts as one of the longest and most grueling fights in television history. Even Netflix’s “Daredevil’s” prison breakout scene with Charlie Cox can’t hold a candle to it. Stuffed with hundreds of extra and stunt doubles, with kids as young as 15 throwing kicks at each other, you will marvel at the choreography and keep hoping nobody gets extremely injured. Few shows attempt a sequence this bold, and frame it succinctly at the end of a season. Bravo. 

You’ll be impressed by Macchio

This is one of those roles that defines a career, for better or worse. While he has worked steadily over the years, Macchio’s above-the-poster status died in the 90’s. Here, he’s an older, somewhat wiser Daniel who still carries a big chip on his shoulder. For him, ridding the town of Lawrence and Kreese becomes his mission. And there are some dramatic scenes, ones that carry more weight than anything he ever did in the movies. There’s one notable sequence where LaRusso stands up to an older Kreese in his dojo, reminding him of the words of Miyagi, how fighting to inflict pain is the wrong path. What could have sounded hokey and insincere out of another actor’s mouth felt lived-in and weighty coming from Macchio. He surprised me. As good as Lawrence and Henggeler are,it’s “Daniel son!” who impressed me the most. 

Give it a shot. At the very least, you will laugh and be entertained. Possibly moved by the story in a way you didn’t think. I think the reason Heald brought it all back was to teach us a good lesson about heroes, villains, the bullied, and how individuals grow out of or into those labels. All three seasons are available on Netflix. 

See you tomorrow, folks.