(This review was based on watching the entire second season of Cobra Kai, and may contain spoilers.)
As Eighties movie sequels go, The Karate Kid Part II wasn’t half-bad. It lacked the surprise and joy of Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi’s first adventure together. But in taking their act on the road to Miyagi’s native Okinawa and exploring more of his backstory, it avoided feeling like a retread of the original film. It wasn’t until the more derivative third film, when Martin Kreese and Cobra Kai staged a convoluted revenge plot against Daniel-san, that the franchise began to feel stale.
By making Daniel’s high school nemesis Johnny Lawrence into the Miyagi figure as an adult, YouTube Premium’s Cobra Kai cleverly upended the series’ old formula for the small screen. The show’s first season kept mixing and matching tropes from the movies — including Johnny training the Daniel-esque Miguel (Xolo Maridueña), while Daniel (Ralph Macchio) in turn became mentor to Johnny’s estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) — and turned out to be far more entertaining than it had any business being.
Cobra Kai could have stuck to the spirit of the films by doing something relatively different for its sequel season. But rather than attempting its own spiritual version of the Okinawa trip, Season Two is largely content to play with minor variations on what worked last year, while also borrowing more plot from Part III than is advisable.
We pick up where the first season left off, on Johnny’s discovery that Kreese (Martin Kove) is still alive and looking to reclaim the business that his best student brought back from the dead. There’s some new tension in the way that Kreese takes Johnny’s Make Karate Great Again approach to more violent extremes — “Someone’s gotta step in,” Kreese promises, “and stop the ass-kissing and start the ass-kicking” — and as Daniel’s daughter Samantha (Mary Mouser) starts training alongside Robby and her dad. Too much of the new season, though, just feels like a rehash of the first. As Daniel sets up a dojo at Mr. Miyagi’s house, for instance, we get multiple versions of him getting new students to paint the fence, sand the floor and wax on, wax off. Each is slightly different from one another, but the returns are diminishing in a hurry.
Where Miguel, Samantha and Robby all had interesting arcs in the first season, the new year is primarily concerned with their love triangle — which soon becomes a rhombus with the arrival of Peyton List as a troublemaking Cobra Kai student with eyes for Miguel. Despite the series being a blatant Gen X nostalgia play, the stories of the younger characters (Miguel in particular) took on nearly equal weight last year to Daniel and Johnny’s feud. This time around, most of the material involving the three main kids feels lightweight and predictably soapy. The most compelling of the teen characters turns out to be Hawk (Jacob Bertrand), the mohawked, tattooed former nerd who has bought in far too deeply to Johnny and Kreese’s teachings. Even though the writers and Bertrand invest him with more nuance than Johnny’s sidekicks had back in the day(*), Hawk is still mostly relegated to the sneering villain role, when a pivot to his story might have been more exciting than watching Robby and Miguel make puppy eyes at Samantha.
(*) The nadir of the new season involves an OG Cobra Kai reunion in the sixth episode, climaxing in an epically groanworthy attempt to put a poignant new spin on one of the original movie’s most memorable moments.
On the plus side, this season makes more use of Macchio, when Daniel was more of a supporting character at the start of the series. Daniel’s fixation on Johnny causes friction in his marriage to Amanda (Courtney Henggeler). This allows Macchio to call on both his bottomless reserve of charm, as Daniel tries to smooth things over with his wife, and his underrated dramatic chops, as we get into the underlying reasons behind this midlife crisis. And the karate scenes are more frequent and generally more technically impressive, particularly an extended fight sequence in the season finale.
The first season kept surprising me with how much I wanted to see what happened next. Season Two unfortunately feels more like what I feared Cobra Kai might be: a rehash of a tale that’s already been retold to death, all because a decent chunk of the audience can quote the original by heart.
At one point, Samantha asks her father what happened between him and Ali, the Elisabeth Shue character from the first film. “That’s a story for another time,” he sighs. “And then there’s a story after that one, and after that one…” There was a pleasantly surprising window where Cobra Kai felt like it was retelling those old stories in a new enough way. The novelty’s gone by now, though.
Season Two premieres April 24th on YouTube Premium, though the first episode will be available to all YouTube users.