Arts, Culture & Entertainment

‘Cobra Kai’ season 3 earns a black belt in storytelling: Review

‘Karate Kid’ spin-off series continues to thrill as it moves to Netflix.

The television definition of absurd almost certainly includes a show about feuding karate dojos led by a grown-up bully and his former victim. Though I’ll let you decide which one of those refers to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) versus Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), I feel comfortable acknowledging that the “Karate Kid” spin-off series “Cobra Kai” doesn’t exactly have a plot that screams for obvious awards at the Emmys every year (though their stunt team has been twice nominated). However, the already-renewed “Cobra Kai” continues to entertain every bit as much on Netflix in its third season as it did in its first two seasons on YouTube Premium.

Last season ended in tragedy when a school-wide karate fight broke out between the students of Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do, causing Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) to send Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) off a second-floor balcony and into a coma. The season finale’s cataclysmic battle has long-reaching consequences that impact nearly every aspect of the third season and will likely reverberate throughout the entire series run.

For starters, it is quickly explained in the season three premiere that immediately after the fight, Aisha (Nichole Brown) moved to a different school and wannabe school security officer Stingray (Paul Walter Hauser) disappeared. While these characters were enjoyable, the show doesn’t suffer because of their absences. In fact, it leaves room for added time on more interesting characters like John Kreese (Martin Kove) and Tory Nichols (Peyton List), who both struggle with sides of themselves unseen by audiences so far. The inclusion of so much backstory for Kreese, in particular, is a welcome surprise for a show that could otherwise begin to feel very familiar after only a few seasons.

Of course, Sensei Johnny Lawrence isn’t going anywhere. At the heart of the series is the father-surrogate son relationship between Johnny and his star student, Miguel. Zabka understands the duality of Johnny Lawrence better than anyone would likely have given him credit for when “The Karate Kid” first premiered. Johnny is not politically correct (he swears at and fights with children… a lot), is barely technically functional at times (we need another spin-off dedicated to Johnny’s plethora of computer problems), and yet, his heart is (almost) always in the right place. Despite his best efforts, Johnny was indirectly responsible for a lot of the physical and emotional pain at the end of last season. The writers wisely allow the story to sit in this uncomfortable place for quite a while, leading to some of the best dramatic scenes of the season early on, in which Zabka performs just as masterfully as he does in his comedic scenes. Ironically, if “Cobra Kai” has proven anything, it’s that William Zabka has so more acting range than just playing a high school bully.

Last season’s fight also casts a shadow over the surprisingly passionate karate community of Los Angeles and impacts the LaRusso’s lives every bit as much as Johnny’s as they struggle to respond to the bad publicity at the car dealership. This leads Daniel on an unexpected mission that sees the return of faces and places he has not seen in a very long time. While it is easily the most forced storyline “Cobra Kai” has ever done and an undeniable load of fan service for devoted “Karate Kid” followers, it’s a lot of fun to see characters from “Karate Kid 2” like Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita) and Chozen (Yuji Okumoto) return. Ultimately, the story’s consequences manage to stick the landing by the time the season concludes.

Additionally, a large part of the show is dedicated to the next generation of karate fighters. Samantha LaRusso (Mary Mouser) struggles with the emotionally traumatizing events of last season, while also trying to forge her own path between her associations with Miyagi-Do and Cobra Kai. The love tri/quadrangle with Samantha/Miguel/Tory/Robby gets a bit tiresome occasionally, but whenever it gets too heavy handed, someone punches someone else, so I don’t have any big complaints. Meanwhile, former social-outcast Demetri (Gianni Decenzo) seems to be the only person at the school to benefit from his involvement in the fight. The beating he delivered to Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) with a single kick has raised Demetri’s social status considerably, while also significantly reducing Hawk’s. Demetri’s transformation from constant complainer to capable fighter is a triumph of character building and his continued growth is easily one of my favorite (and one of the funniest) arcs of the season.

If I were to make a small complaint, it would be that parts of “Cobra Kai” occasionally feel like a soap opera in which you can roll the dice and draw up some character allegiances at random. However, the relationships that hold strong amidst all the fighting in between keep this show kicking (and punching) strong.

Verdict: 9.6/10 - The third season of “Cobra Kai” kicks off 2021 with just the right amount of thrills, humor, joy and heart. Coming in at just a little over five and a half hours on Jan. 1, it’s the perfect first binge of the new year.