It had everything going against it. A Karate Kid series? It sounded like one of many such efforts aimed at squeezing just as much commercial juice as possible out of a much-loved franchise. But, when it eventually did appear, Cobra Kai caught many by surprise, especially with how showrunners approached the original material, paying homage to the original Karate Kid while at the same time distancing itself from the film, applying a tongue-in-cheek perspective compatible with that which remains a declaration of love for the 1984 original, and which they managed to turn around by giving us a new pair of glasses through which to view the story. This time around the star of the show would be Daniel’s nemesis, Johnny Lawrence, whose updated story would question the canon established in Karate Kid, which basically held Daniel LaRusso aloft as the good guy in the tale. Relying on the complicity of both Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, the series revived the duel between the two with lashings of self-referential humor, compelling martial arts scenes, and the corresponding tributes and winks to moviegoers, like the episode dedicated to Pat Morita.
Although it may have been the perfect formula, it was never going to be one that could be reproduced successfully for long, and signs of exhaustion are now more than visible in the recently released fourth season on Netflix. First and foremost, the series is beginning to reveal how Johnny Lawrence, the most charismatic and thug-like character, is losing more ground every day to other characters, as his loss of voice steers towards the show taking itself more seriously. Secondly, it has become repetitive, rehashing time and again the same conflicts or portraying similar situations. The debate over which martial arts philosophy should reign supreme; the LaRusso-Miyagi defense, or the Johnny-Cobra Kai attack first, is beginning to feel like the dead horse that should no longer be flogged and has now become tedious. Many elements typical of the genre have also been repeated to the point of no return, such as the training session scenes complete with the rock-metal soundtrack (albeit with showrunners having tried everything to make them as original as possible, with tennis-ball launching machines, burning embers and even chains), but others features of the dramatic storyline are far too recurrent, like for example the idea of children distancing themselves from their fathers only to end up under the wing of a symbolic father-figure (several characters boarded that ship with some even making return, back and forth and triple voyages complete with the corresponding changes of karate team). This ship has sailed far too often.
The main burden continues to be generating young actors, whose conflicts and love troubles are of relative interest, but they’ve strip-mined this territory to such an extent that we’re introduced to even more fresh blood in season four as new kid on the block and bullying victim, Kenny, turns to martial arts combat for empowerment. In addition, greater prominence is given to Danny LaRusso’s son, Anthony in this season. Of course, the objective is to renew the youth roster, but how long can this go on for? With the incorporation of Kreese and especially Terry Silver, the series has become the story of a group of adults who insist on settling old scores by teaching a bunch of kids to knock the beejeebus out of each other. If Cobra Kai doesn’t find the way to laugh at itself again or reinvent the formula, very soon the entertainment value will be all but lost. In fact, what worked best for showrunners in this last season is exactly the same as what worked for them in season one: when they refer to a moment from the original Karate Kid (not the sequels) revealing an unexpected side to a character we thought we knew well. That’s where Cobra Kai hits the mark, straight to the heart of fans. Everything else just fails to make any impact at all.