‘Cobra Kai’ Exemplifies all the Strengths and Weaknesses of Streaming TV

The number one show on Netflix for the past few days has been Cobra Kai, a sequel to the 1980s Karate Kid movie series. That is just as insane a fact as it sounds. The Karate Kid movies weren’t even that good; They were fine but they weren’t Back to the Future or The Princess Bride or anything like that. On top of that, the basic concept for the show, that Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai dojo isn’t such a bad guy and Daniel LaRusso isn’t such a good guy, was essentially created from a joke on an episode of How I Met Your Mother that Ralph Macchio and William Zabka guest-starred on.

Somehow this mess of an idea based on an okay movie you probably haven’t watched in 30 years actually works really well, and it probably has binge-watching on streaming to thank for that. I watched all 30 episodes of Cobra Kai in two weekends; I watched the two seasons that had premiered on YouTube about a week before Christmas and I watched season 3 on New Year’s Day when it premiered.

I don’t think I would have tuned in to watch this if I had to wait a week between episodes. I may have, I watch Riverdale and The Big Bang Theory so I’m something of a connoisseur of terrible television, but a big part of the appeal of Cobra Kai was the ability to throw it on while I was playing a Switch game I had picked up during the winter sales we just had.

The show is practically built on tracking the characters’ shifting allegiances, and the driving plot is the will-they-or-won’t-they between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence; they don’t have a romantic relationship, but over the first three seasons their friendship is played a lot like Sam and Diane or Ross and Rachel, where they clearly both want to be friends and bury the hatchet but plot contrivances push them apart time and again.

Did I mention the allegiances are to karate dojos? It’s one thing when the teen cast, consisting of Daniel’s daughter Sam, Johnny’s estranged son Robby and Johnny’s first student Miguel and their friends, fight over who goes to the best karate dojo, but it’s a little hard to swallow when adults do, something the show is actually very aware of and has some meta jokes about.

The return of Cobra Kai’s sensei from the first Karate Kid, John Kreese, really amps how insane the plot is. Johnny and Daniel have an almost friendly rivalry in the first season but Kreese is basically a cartoon supervillain pulled from Power Rangers or Captain Planet. You really have to suspend your disbelief when Kreese is around because (spoiler for the season 3 finale if you haven’t watched it) at one point he tries to straight-up murder Johnny and Daniel, and his motivation for doing so is pretty hazy. I think it’s just about winning an annual karate tournament but Kreese acts like he’s still in Vietnam.

Cobra Kai does get into Kreese’s backstory as a POW in Vietnam and shows him, at times, to be a complex human who honestly thinks he’s shaping his students to be ready for life. But I don’t know what level of PTSD you need to be on to think that you need to murder people in the name of your karate dojo.

The ability to pick up the show when you want and binge watch it were pluses that drove a lot of people to check out Cobra Kai, but there is one huge drawback to streaming that I think is also going to hurt Cobra Kai; it could be over a year before any new episodes show up. Season 3 was completed and unaired when Netflix bought the show after YouTube Red cancelled it, but season 4 hasn’t even started production yet. I don’t know if people are going to be counting the days for an entire year to see more of this show. It’s not exactly Game of Thrones, even if it treats karate lessons with the same gravitas as fighting dragons.

Ultimately, Cobra Kai is a show about Johnny Lawrence and William Zabka really makes Johnny a likable guy. It’s funny how the one-dimension 80s high school bully can become the emotional core of a show like this, but it actually kind of works.

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