The joy of Cobra Kai has always been in its mix of tones. Not many shows can pull off an earnest worldview combined with crass humor, an extremely silly premise, and insightful social commentary. But Cobra Kai does, which keeps this remake spinning through its latest season, premiering on Netflix on Friday, December 31.
The fourth season of The Karate Kid spin-off delivers 10 new episodes that will surely please those who’ve watched the first three seasons, the formula relaxing enough to enjoy itself. Once again, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is challenged to learn and grow. That he apparently spent the 34 years since losing the All Valley Karate Tournament to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) without forming any real relationships, but in the last 18 months has built all sorts of meaningful connections continues to make little sense, yet does yield all sorts of hilarity. The new season sees Johnny grappling with social media (he has only one follower) and recognizing that Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) means more to him than his star pupil.
Perhaps Johnny’s best moment is when he tries to recruit female students using all the old tricks that got him “babes” back in the day. When that doesn’t work, he declares that he “even learned feminism” to recruit one particularly promising student who he momentarily convinces to join. With that failure adding to his many others, Johnny has to re-learn that a fighting instinct can come in more packages than one. His fumbling remains the best thing about the show, and season four has plenty of it.
For his part, Daniel is still stuck in his own narrative of himself. He appears to have some sort of lingering trauma (PTSD maybe?) from the events that spanned the original films. We see the ’80s in flashbacks, with Daniel still believing himself to be a bullied kid rather than a successful middle-aged dad. The result is a holier-than-thou attitude, believing he’s right by virtue of just being himself. That chip on his shoulder remains his biggest obstacle, whether he’s trying to partner with Johnny, parent his two kids, or deal with his “enemies,” a.k.a. the original leaders of Cobra Kai.
Speaking of, John Kreese (Martin Kove) is joined by an unhinged Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) in the villain role, furthering the show’s cartoonish tendencies. Silver starts off reluctant, echoing Johnny’s original skepticism in reuniting with Kreese in season two. But he leaves his cushy life in a beach house with a wine cellar and a grand piano to be the assistant teacher to a bunch of sweaty teenagers in the Valley. And then he loses all sense of scale, going to extreme lengths (like he did in Karate Kid 3) to win. Why? Because karate is a way of life! And the All Valley Tournament is apparently its unofficial apex.
Over the 10 episodes, Silver’s decisions make little sense, unless you can suspend belief and dive into the idea that the goings-on of a local club sport for teenagers would define grown men’s personalities immediately upon entering its orbit. But such is the premise of Cobra Kai (although it tries to spin that some backstory about Kreese and Silver’s time in Vietnam explains it all. Reader, it does not).
The kids continue to be largely pawns in the grown men’s ego battles, which does get a bit tiring. The heir to Daniel’s legacy, warm-hearted fighter Miguel, spends most of his time looking befuddled at senseis Lawrence and LaRusso in what surely represents a misuse of his talents. The eldest LaRusso child, Samantha (Mary Mouser), gets plenty to do, rebelling against her dad and continuing her season three feud with Tory. But she doesn’t quite pull it off, remaining the soft, sheltered child, even as we’re supposed to believe she’s becoming tougher and more independent.
That said, there’s a fight scene at prom that is exceptional: picture flouncing skirts, a pool, two couples warring, a love trapezoid, and more. The visually delightful sequence embodies the show’s mix of earnest and silly, letting the situation be both real and over the top, cliché and particular. Likewise, newcomer Kenny (Dallas Dupree Young) is a bright spot. He’s another edition of the Karate Kid archetype, like Daniel in 1984 and Miguel in 2018: the bullied kid who learns karate to defend himself. In his early scenes, his fear is palpable, more real than many of the show’s other, supposedly scary situations. The conclusion, tournament and all, has its own moments of growth and surprise.
Cobra Kai season four nicely continues the journeys of our favorite (and only) Valley karate fanatics, delivering fun along with impressively high kicks, moments of true emotion, and just enough stunted development to keep it all spinning.