Cobra Kai’s first season was every bit as good as the original The Karate Kid. So it follows that a sequel would be as capable and competent — and no more — as 1986’s The Karate Kid Part 2, remembered as a formulaic sequel that captured fans’ attention, not their hearts.
Season 1 of Cobra Kai stole mine by showing that, against all odds, a return to beloved characters and their stories really can be as good as the first time — and even feel new and fresh. More than just a kick in the nostalgia pants, Cobra Kai was a show that really understood its audience’s affection for The Karate Kid’s characters and themes, and applied them to a deep, rollicking cast in which, somehow, everyone was worth rooting for — and also against.
Cobra Kai season 2 struggles with that abundance of audience empathy, ultimately spreading it so thin, as a poorly paced story lurches from fight to fight, that no one really stood out or won my allegiance. The setup: Nothing good lasts, and all the gains of the first act must be undone, or at least seriously threatened, as all the main characters are driven apart. It’s a worthy enough approach, and indeed all of season 2’s plot points are sound, I just was unmoved by how the story arrived at them.
Miguel, (Xolo Maridueña) the teenage protagonist of season 1, made a borderline but very well implemented heel turn at the end of last year, costing him and Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) their blooming love. In season 2, we find Miguel isn’t particularly tortured by the loss of Sam, nor is he reveling in his ascendant power or wrestling new choices between right and wrong that it presents. He’s still a moon-faced mama’s boy, really, which foreshadows an overall lack of change in the major characters.
Disappointingly, that includes Miguel’s sensei Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who issues new orders that countermand Cobra Kai’s motto itself. The Cobras must now show mercy, as Miguel’s victory in the All-Valley Karate Championships came by targeting his opponent’s badly damaged shoulder. His opponent, of course, was Johnny’s estranged son Robbie Keene (Tanner Buchanan), under the tutelage of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). Again, I agree with the conflict that sets up, particularly as it looks like Johnny is favoring Robbie over those who have actually placed their trust in him. But no real emotional tension follows and it’s barely a wedge for Johnny’s old master, John Kreese (Martin Kove) to exploit in his not-so-subtle goal of retaking the dojo.
As to Kreese, who reappeared in a whopper of a fan-service finale last year, it’s fine if Kove, now 73, can’t project the physicality his character had 35 years ago. That wasn’t what made Kreese a menace. In Cobra Kai season 2, Kreese simply isn’t enough of a sadist or a psychopath to be much of a threat — or much fun for the viewer. He’s revealed to be a boastful, sad old failure, which is eminently called for (especially in light of that ridiculous Special Forces photo that once graced Cobra Kai’s entrance). But Kreese’s humiliation happens early, and the character never really recovers. Nor does he tempt the malleable Cobras’ learned instinct to fight savagely, leaving me wondering how Kreese could have any kind of hold over them.
Things are not much clearer on the white-hat side of things for Daniel’s reconstituted Miyagi-do Karate. On the whole, though, we’re given a sensible portrayal of a karate master who himself has much to learn about teaching others. Setting up a dojo and offering free instruction to anyone who comes in the door won’t, by itself, spread self-esteem, self-discipline and other benevolences. Turns out, instructing others in karate is as hard as learning it, especially when you can’t mass-produce the kind of one-on-one trust and affection Daniel felt for his old master, and his daughter and Robbie feel for him. There are things Cobra Kai season 2 does well: Daniel’s reckoning with his limitations is subtle, but it’s the show’s narrative strength.
But the risks here, and elsewhere in the shades of gray the show’s creators seek to present, aren’t validated in The Karate Kid’s high-contrast world of haves-versus-have-nots, insecure bullies and resentful picked-ons, and bad guys and girls getting their asses beat. The result is that no one particularly stands out as heroes or villains, fallen or redeemed. Worse yet, both dojos are undermined by dead-weight characters who receive way too much time and attention.
There’s Paul Walter Hauser as an adult student among the teenage Cobras, so overused in a comedy relief role one wonders if the actor won a bet with the producers. For Miyagi-do, Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) is far too obstreperous and unsympathetic to make his contributions — fitting in with well adjusted kids, and challenging Daniel’s patience and ability to teach — anything other than exasperating to the viewer. Demetri’s beef with Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), in which Demetri excavates humiliating stories from Hawk’s dorky past, crackles with betrayal and hatred. But instead of being the focus of the Cobra Kai/Miyagi-do rivalry, it drains attention from the main conflict among Robbie, Miguel and Sam’s love triangle. There are simply too many fights going on to invest in any one of them.
Also missing from season 2 is the unflinching verisimilitude of the teenage conflicts from the first season. Sam was slut-shamed by a vengeful ex. Aisha Robinson (Nichole Brown) was viciously tormented on social media over her looks and her weight; ur-bully Kyler and his clods (they don’t return to season 2) wielded wealth and popularity as much as their fists and feet against Miguel; and 50-year-old Johnny even drew a dick over Daniel’s face on a billboard.
The antagonism in season 2 seems as weak and half-hearted as the practice punches the Cobras throw. (Seriously, when Kreese calls “ai!” these kids should be launching missiles.) I watched season 2 with my best friend, a schoolteacher, and we rolled our eyes at the impotence of “nerd,” the kids’ go-to insult. “Really, kids this age would be calling each other [homophobic slur], but they can’t do that,” my friend correctly observed. Yet in the tournament semifinals last year, Johnny instructed Miguel to “kick that pansy bitch in the face.” Even as Cobra Kai’s hand-to-hand combat increases at least a quarterfold in season 2, the writers play it safer with the teens’ dialogue and behavior.
Where the first season was a bona fide teensploitation soap opera, with its three-R indulgences (romance, rejection, and revenge) season 2 more resembles a kind of Power Rangers-esque afternoon action show. The story’s inconsistent pacing is hurried along by the need to get to the next fight, the next karate demonstration, the next training exercise. If the characters are processing anything about their circumstances, there’s very little time for the audience to follow along with them.
In another example, Daniel invests so much time in his karate charity that he neglects the auto dealership he runs with his wife (Courtney Henggeler). But it comes so late in the story, where the setup for the final conflict is so far behind schedule, that there is time only to resolve it with a spousal remonstration about finding balance, and not Daniel really learning something about himself. The Karate Kid’s best moments have come in Daniel’s self-discovery, especially when he learns from a failure and applies it to a success.
I can’t recall any powerful one-on-one scene in Cobra Kai season 2, which is an even larger missed opportunity considering Johnny’s richly fraught histories with his son, Kreese and Daniel. Late in the show, Daniel and Johnny wander into each other’s paths, and their sensible significant others prod them to the cusp of bro-ing out. Yet another misunderstanding thwarts that. That’s fine, and their scrape is plausibly presented, their fears and anger reasonable — until it explodes into a gratuitous fight scene. It seems the writers think we want to see them beat each other up (we don’t) more than be friends (we do).
The karate set piece that finishes the season is an order of magnitude larger and more drawn out than even the tournament last year. While the writers properly present its aftermath as something that has gone too far, something everyone regrets, they quickly race to tick off all the cliffhanger boxes setting up season 3 (which YouTube has yet to order).
So we end the season, in which no one really changes or develops, with Johnny in the throes of unearned anguish and nihilism over what was lost. There’s no reason to get excited over his desperate outreach to a character from the past, because it’s so nakedly a producer’s attempt to get the last member of the band back. If Cobra Kai is returning for a third act, my best hope is that an otherwise forgivable mess was contained to its second. No one, much less an Oscar nominee, should be asked back for clean-up duty.