A series of flashbacks run throughout season three of Cobra Kai. Only, they don’t belong to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), adrift after his dojo was stolen from him and his best student Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) trapped in a coma following the brawl that ended season two. And they also don’t belong to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), struggling to keep his family and business together in the wake of his daughter’s suspension and the negative fallout from being the public face of a dojo whose students were deemed responsible for a school-wide riot. No, these flashbacks follow John Kreese (Martin Kove), Johnny’s former sensei and the show’s cigar-chomping villain, following him as an idealistic young man going to Vietnam in 1968, presumably so the audience can get a deep insight into his character and learn why he turned out so cruel and monomaniacal. But is there really anything to learn that would make us change our minds about such a sneering sociopath? As Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) says early on, voicing the show’s overarching theme: “Everybody’s got a sob story. Doesn’t give you the right to be a bully.”
But that’s the Cobra Kai way: a long walk to confirm what you already knew. Luckily, there’s a lot of humor and good-natured theatrics accompanying the story this time around. After season two got bogged down in straight-laced melodrama and lost much of the series’ initial acidic insight, it looked as though Cobra Kai might have fallen victim to the very macho posturing it used to lampoon. And while that tension is very much still present this year—episodes can turn from comic to portentously cartoonish faster than a crane kick—the creative team seems to have remembered that what makes all the teenage chop-socky-infused drama palatable is a healthy sense of sardonic perspective on the proceedings. Taking all the soapy emoting at face value quickly gets tiresome, as last season demonstrated; now, the show is once more aware that something like a news announcer grimly reporting on the aftereffects of a high school’s “all-out karate riot” is pretty ridiculous.
That’s not to say the show doesn’t try to have it both ways. It wants you deeply invested in these characters and stories—which isn’t always attainable when a large amount of the quality comes from reminding us that all this upheaval is the result of two middle-aged men’s petty squabbling. In the wake of the Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-Do brawl between the warring factions of kids that concluded last season, all our protagonists are in a dark place. Johnny is drinking and feeling sorry for himself, having lost his students and business largely through his own short-sightedness, to say nothing of the intense worry he has over the fate of Miguel, still in a coma after breaking his back in a fall during the fight with Johnny’s estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan). Daniel and his wife Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) are sick with worry about Sam and facing financial hardship after the community places blame for the eruption of violence squarely on him and his Miyagi-Do ambitions. And Robby is missing in action, hiding from the police after his fight with Miguel.
For the first part of the season, it seems as though things might once more tip into sudsy schlock. There’s still far too much speechifying and turning every possible bit of subtext into text. (Beware any guest appearance from someone who was in the original movies; it’s a sure sign people are about to stop talking like humans and start mouthing writerly character motivations and thematic concerns, instead.) And much of the supporting cast remain one-note sidebars, devoid of depth or interest; despite brief and uninspired efforts to insert some pathos into their characters, nerd-turned-bully Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) and tough girl Tory (Peyton List) may as well be given mustaches to twirl. At least the wafer-thin personas of the underdogs doesn’t prevent Gianni Decenzo from shining in his charismatic turn as Demetri.
But whenever the show gets back to basics, focusing on the dynamics and interplay between its leads, it once again sparkles as the scruffy, off-kilter and minor cringe comedy it began life as. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Miguel wakes up (jesus, what a dark show this would be if he didn’t), and the comic-foil chemistry between Maridueña and Zabka is once more the best thing about the series. (Zabka, in particular, embodies the show’s sharp past-your-prime humor: There’s a scene where we watch Johnny brainstorming ways to help Miguel walk again, and the list he’s written down includes “Hypnosis, acupuncture, Tony Robbins, LSD”.) Macchio and Zabka have a similarly good affinity for knowing how to enliven their scenes together, and any time the two of them are both on screen, it feels like Cobra Kai is living up to its potential.
It’s important to acknowledge that its potential is only about yea high, however. (Insert a middling spin kick to illustrate said height.) This show relies heavily on soap-opera structure—scenes tend to end with characters saying something severe and then exiting, leaving the remaining person to stare pensively at nothing—and the intentionally cheesy ’80s music cues are paired with similarly cornball dialogue whenever the show tries to inject some heartfelt emotion. Still, the season works overtime to win viewers over with its loose, goofball charms, and when Daniel makes a nostalgic trip to Okinawa halfway through the season, the narrative and humor both start to accelerate in far more enjoyably broad ways. There are still more than a few moments of badly engineered plotting and situations that leave you dumbfounded none of these kids have called the police; but Cobra Kai isn’t trying to score points for believability. Season three pummels you with enough broad laughs and over-the-top twists to keep you coming back to its televised dojo, no matter how often it backslides into hokum. As Johnny says, right after delivering an inspiring speech to his students, only to then turn around and slap the books out of the hands of a random nerd passing by: “Sorry, kid—old habits.”