Pulling off a successful film to television adaptation is a tricky business. While TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “M*A*S*H*” are stellar examples of TV adaptations that expanded and even elevated their film origins, there have also been forgettable failures like “Dirty Dancing” (1998) and “Ferris Bueller” (1990). In the case of “Cobra Kai,” which returns for its fourth season on Netflix, we’re treated to a series that faithfully honors its roots while managing to tell new and compelling stories through its two main protagonists, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel “Danny” LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).
“Cobra Kai” is an extension of the 1984 film, “The Karate Kid,” which tells the story of Danny LaRusso, a shy teenager who relocates from New Jersey to Los Angeles, and soon becomes the target of rich golden boy Johnny Lawrence, when they both vie for the affection of Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue). After Danny suffers a brutal beatdown from Johnny, who is part of the feared martial arts team Cobra Kai, Danny trains under the kind and wise Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) and ends up defeating Johnny in a climactic showdown at the All-Valley Karate Championship. “The Karate Kid” would spawn several sequels and a remake in 2010 starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan.
“Cobra Kai” revisits the rivalry between Danny and Johnny (with Zabka and Macchio reprising their roles), but smartly subverts viewers’ expectations by telling the story from Johnny’s point of view. 34 years later, life hasn’t been kind to Johnny — he’s a washed up middle-aged man working menial jobs who has a contentious relationship with his teenage son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). After seeing Danny in a commercial promoting his car dealership, Johnny decides to re-open the Cobra Kai dojo, taking on his next door neighbor Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) as his first student. What is old is new again, as Danny recruits his own students to teach the lessons he learned from Mr. Miyagi, re-creating a similar rivalry between the Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do from the original film.
What “Cobra Kai” gets so right is its examination of bullying and violence and how these traumas manifest in each of the characters. Years later, we realize the bruises Danny and Johnny carry are more than skin deep and shape how they interact with each other and their loved ones. With Johnny, we come to understand that his mistreatment of Danny was rooted from his own low self-esteem due to neglect from his mother and emotionally abusive stepfather. For Daniel, his lower middle-class upbringing motivated him to give his wife Amanda and their children the trappings of the upper class he never experienced as a child. We also see these same themes reflected in the storylines of the younger cast. The love quadrangle between Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), Tory (Peyton List), Miguel, and Robby escalated into a violent showdown that resulted in Miguel being paralyzed at the end of Season 2. The conflict between Sam and Tory shows that violence isn’t reserved for just the boys — female rage can be just as brutal and toxic.
Season 4 picks up with Danny and Johnny combining their respective dojos to take down Johnny’s former Cobra Kai sensei, John Kreese. Kreese is determined to shut down Danny and Johnny, so he reaches out to his former partner, Terry Silver, one of the antagonists from “Karate Kid III.” What Cobra Kai has done so well, is pull in characters from the previous films to advance the story. For Danny, Silver is a painful reminder of his rejection of Miyagi’s teaching and briefly joining Cobra Kai. We also find out that Kreese and Silver’s friendship is much more than meets the eye.
This season also brings new talent in the form of Dallas Young Dupree who plays Kenny, a bullied teen who turns to Robby for help in how to defend himself. Dupree is fantastic in the role, and his story arc serves as a cautionary tale of how easily the line between hero and villain can be blurred.
Shifting alliances and loyalties up the ante this season, as Danny and Johnny are forced to re-examine their fighting philosophies. Daniel, who has been unbending in upholding Miyagi’s defensive approach to karate, begins to realize that perhaps it may not be the only way when Johnny challenges him by saying “just because something has been around longer doesn’t make it better.” Johnny also realizes that the “no mercy” approach taught to him by Kreese, isn’t always beneficial to his students. Johnny and Danny’s partnership is fraught with tension, fueled by past hurts they’ve inflicted on each other and the writers wisely show that reconciliation can be hard-earned and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
The climactic two-part season finale culminates in the annual All-Valley championship that put Johnny and Daniel’s newfound lessons to the test, as well as some surprise victories and defeats that will have audiences on the edge of their seats. There’s also a delicious betrayal that sets up new alliances and rivalries for Season 5. As Silver warns Kreese, “If we’re gonna rehash the past, history will repeat itself all over again.”
“Cobra Kai” Season 4 is now streaming on Netflix.