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‘Cobra Kai’ continues the ‘The Karate Kid’ legacy with humor, emotional storytelling and more than a few illegal crane kicks

“Cobra Kai” shouldn’t work as a show. In theory, it sounds like a shameless nostalgia mine. The show’s concept originated as a recurring punchline on “How I Met Your Mother” and it was first released on a pretty much DOA streaming service, Youtube Red. Despite all odds, “Cobra Kai” manages to succeed as both a continuation of the “The Karate Kid” saga and as a TV show in its own right through a combination of compelling storytelling, a healthy dose of nostalgia and more than a smidge of suspension of disbelief.

Season four of “Cobra Kai” picks up exactly where season three ended. Johnny Laurence’s (William Zabka) new dojo, Eagle Fang, finally joined forces with Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) Miyagi-Do in order to defeat the titular Cobra Kai dojo, led by John Kreese (Martin Kove). In response to his former teenage nemesis and protege teaming up, Kreese recruits Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) from “The Karate Kid Part III.”

One of my biggest problems with the third season of Cobra Kai was that it had lost most of the moral ambiguity of the first two seasons. With Laurence forced out of Cobra Kai, the Miyagi-Do and Eagle Fang students were undoubtedly the good guys and all of the Cobra Kai students turned into clear-cut antagonists. This season dwells in shades of gray—the Larusso family is antagonistic a surprising amount of the time and formerly antagonistic characters like Tori (Peyton List) and even Kreese himself show more sympathetic characteristics, with Tori trying to keep her life and family together by reentering school and Kreese finally realizing that he made mistakes with Johnny during the first “Karate Kid.”

The emotional core of the show is, as always, the seemingly never ending feud between Johnny and Daniel. By now, both characters are in completely different places than they were when they first met in the first “Karate Kid,” but are still trapped in a repeating cycle. Their tenuous alliance at the start of the season nearly breaks apart several times before their rivalry resurfaces in a climactic rematch. Before that, however, Johnny and Daniel both get to see how life is on the other side. An early episode gives both senseis a chance to learn the others’ karate style, gaining a real, albeit short lived, respect for each other. Daniel’s almost bullheaded desire to stick exclusively with his preferred style of karate, even when it means sacrificing his best chance of defeating Cobra Kai by teaming up with Johnny, is annoying at times, but this tendency does reinforce how Johnny is the protagonist of the show.

Johnny and Daniel’s conflict also reverberates through the younger generation of characters in the show. Both of their protegees, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) and Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser), are pulled to learn from each others’ teachers. By the end of the season, Samantha is a much more aggressive fighter than Daniel ever planned for her to be and Miguel realizes that fighting for an All Valley Championship might not be what he wants anymore. Johnny’s own son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan), who has sided with both Johnny and Daniel in the past, is now fully done with their rivalry and is learning from Kreese. Robby plans to use Cobra Kai for his own benefit, unwilling to trust anyone after Johnny and Daniel both seemingly betray him. Over the course of this season, Robby takes on his own protegee, a middle schooler named Kenny, who is being bullied by Daniel’s younger son, Anthony (Griffin Santopietro). In another effort to correct mistakes of past seasons, Anthony is actually relevant to the plot now, rather than just being relegated to an occasional one off appearance per season. The other students each get a chance to shine, especially Hawk/Eli (Jacob Bertrand) and Demitri (Gianni DeCenzo), who are finally back to being friends after two seasons largely at odds.

One of the biggest swings of this season was easily the reintroduction of Terry Silver. When the audience first sees him again, Silver appears to have left his Cobra Kai days behind. He’s happy, content, and in therapy. His actions towards Daniel in “The Karate Kid Part III” are passed off as being under the influence of a significant amount of drugs. Over the course of 10 episodes, Kreese not only drags him back into the fold, but pushes Silver off the deep end. By the end of the season, Silver has completely gone off the rails, culminating in a surprising betrayal.

Most of the complaints I’ve heard about season four, and about “Cobra Kai” as a whole, is that the show’s karate fights strain the suspension of disbelief. I strongly disagree. The reality of the show is heightened, yes, but the show manages to get around that by having its own characters remark on how absurd several aspects are. Daniel’s wife, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) expresses disbelief in the first episode that their “family’s safety relies on winning a karate tournament.” Another character later comments on the frequency of karate fights infringing on their lives. “Cobra Kai” is also genuinely funny and meta when it wants to be, with a character once remarking that their “core demo is middle aged men and their sons.”

“Cobra Kai” is a perfect example of how the recent trend of reboots and revivals should operate. By treating its original source material with care, but also critically examining it in order to tell a brand new story, “Cobra Kai” is able to continue the journeys of legacy characters such as Johnny and Daniel, while also adding new characters such as Miguel, Sam and Robby to those same legacies. Season five has already been filmed, so hopefully it won’t be long until “Cobra Kai” returns to Netflix with more punches, laughs and earnestly emotional kicks to the heart.

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