Netflix UK TV review: Cobra Kai Season 3
James R | On 01, Jan 2021
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 and 2 of Cobra Kai. Catch up with our review of Season 1 here – and our review of Season 2 here.
“I don’t even know what this was but I had a really good time,” says yet another returning face from The Karate Kid franchise as Cobra Kai enters its third season. That this unlikely hit sequel to the 80s movie series is even at a third season is testament to the show’s determination and its winning charm.
Rooted firmly in affection and fond memories of the past, it’s a programme that blends nostalgia with the realities of the modern day, initially for comic effect and increasingly for dramatic heft. That gradual evolution, from self-aware parody to earnest character piece, is both Cobra Kai’s strength and its weakness, with Season 3 simultaneously offering some of the show’s best work yet while at times veering from fan service into fan fiction.
We rejoin the series as it adjusts to the thrilling – but devastating – high school brawl that closed out Season 2. Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) is now in hospital, while Robby (Tanner Buchanan) is fleeing the law and the kids at school are being encourage to “hug not hit”, as the whole valley turns against the resurgent popularity of karate.
In the middle of it all are our two leads: Johnny (William Zabka), the 80s man now unsure whether fighting is ever the answer, and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), convinced that his Mr Miyagi-inspired philosophy is the answer to everything, even as his car dealership suffers from his connection to the sweeping trend of teen-on-teen violence. They are, as always, a fun duo to watch, both trying to help Robby as his father and sensei respectively, while Johnny also tries to make up for his shortcomings by throwing his support behind Miguel.
In between them is the series’ key third figure, John Kreese (Martin Kove). Johnny’s former sensei, and now leader of the Cobra Kai dojo, he seems to exist for no reason other than to make everyone’s lives as painful and miserable as possible. Kove brings an intimidating physicality to the role, but remains a frustratingly shallow character, with zero motivation or understanding. Creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg are smart enough to recognise this, but the flashbacks to Vietnam that we get to explain his backstory only highlight that Cobra Kai isn’t the place to go to for Vietnam flashbacks, both in terms of budget and tone.
While the show does have less of the humour that defined its first and strongest season – some Facebook jokes and a scene in a soup kitchen both stick out like sore thumbs – it hasn’t moved on from the central tenet that fighting is the answer to everything. As a result, Miguel’s rehabilitation is dubious at best – and not just because of Johnny’s questionable teaching resources – while the anxiety attacks experienced by Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), after a brutal tussle with the wayward Tory (Peyton List), are hugely over-simplified. It’s telling that the best character out of the youngest cast members is Hawk (a wonderfully versatile Jacob Bertrand), who has to try and choose between the two rival dojos.
That also means a brief interlude in Japan also has little substance for character development or thematic growth, beyond the ongoing questions of how to reconcile the present with the past, preferably through fighting. Those are Cobra Kai’s sweet spots partly because it has such a wealth of past to reconcile with – there’s not just one but several old faces who crop up in this third season, to varying degrees of success and relevance. And, in between each conversation involving these old friends and rivals, there’s a smattering of clips from the original movies to remind everyone of where they came from. Three seasons in and that cycle can start to feel repetitive – while the episodes are a brisk 30 minutes each, a shorter, tighter season would help to avoid the feeling that Cobra Kai is trying to do much at the same time and a result only tackling its goals with the broadest of roundhouse kicks.
But for all its flaws, the show remains a fun watch, not least thanks to Zabka and Macchio’s irresistible chemistry – Daniel’s wife, Amanda (the brilliantly sharp Courtney Henggeler), emerges as the MVP in many of their confrontations, perhaps because she can pop their nostalgic bubble with an outsider’s perspective.
The fighting, too, gets better with each season, and while we don’t need yet another showdown between all the young students to try and tie things up come the climax, the moves on display are impressive – and, in one superb sequence, accompanied by some brilliant rock-tinged remixes of Christmas carols. When it’s in motion, Cobra Kai hasn’t lost its ability to reach out and grab fans with both hands.
“Thanks for making me feel like a kid again,” one returning character remarks near the end. If that’s the show’s main success, it’s still one worth tuning in for – and, with the pieces finally in a place where the already-greenlit fourth season can let these characters move forward with their futures, the promise of Cobra Kai growing into its full potential is an appealing one.
Cobra Kai is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.