‘Cobra Kai’ Season 4 Delivers Another Kick of Absurdist Nostalgia and Fun

Streaming offers few shows as absurdly watchable as Netflix’s “Cobra Kai.” It’s both a nostalgia high and ridiculously angst-ridden comedy-drama. In its world, the Valley in Southern California is a battleground where local dojos wage the kind of hardcore competitions for power that you would expect from cartels or nation states. While other sequels or throwbacks function nearly as remakes, “Cobra Kai” has always been goofy fun in the way it continues the world of “The Karate Kid” movies with a straight face. The two teens who faced off in the originals may be slightly over middle age now, but their lives still revolve around old vendettas and tournaments. At the same time, that’s sort of the charm of fictional TV. You can make a show about anything. Just do it well. 

At the end of last season, the home of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio of “The Karate Kid”) had become the scene of a massive brawl between his Miyagi dojo students and the students of the sinister Cobra Kai dojo. In the aftermath Daniel put aside lingering differences with old rival Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka also of the original “Karate Kid”) in order to team up with his Eagle Fang dojo. Cobra Kai sensei and longtime “Karate Kid” villain John Kreese (Martin Kove) has already laid down a new challenge: If his infamous dojo loses to Daniel and Johnny at an upcoming tournament, then he will close up shop. But if Daniel and Johnny lose, then their days as local karate instructors are over. In the real world this would probably be settled with lawsuits, but in “Cobra Kai” this is the detonator for a season where the two former rivals try to mesh their different fighting styles. Meanwhile Kreese seeks out an old friend, demented rich guy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who you may recall tormented Daniel way back in 1989’s “The Karate Kid Part III.” Together the two maniacs hope to finally crush the Miyagi/Eagle Fang alliance.

What began as a show on YouTube Red for its first two seasons now continues as a curiously workable blender of nostalgia, soap opera and martial arts. What showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg do well is keep intact the very spirit of “The Karate Kid.” The soundtrack brims with ‘80s hits and sounds, while few of the teenagers are seriously pondering life after high school. What matters this season, even more than in the previous three, is how this war of the dojos means everything in their existence. Parallel to the big feuds, we still dive into the lives of all these characters with enough of a personal touch to each of them. Daniel and Johnny are still facing the same differences from the first movie in 1984, when the late Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) taught Daniel karate as a fine discipline based on defense, while Johnny was being trained by Kreese to be a ruthless attacker. Now in trying to teach a group of teens together, the sensei’s mentalities clash. Daniel has the students try to dive for fish in his Japanese pond while Johnny throws them into unforgiving obstacle courses. Johnny is also given some dated misogynist dialogue to hilariously show how he’s the typical Gen Xer who doesn’t get woke culture at all. 

The teenagers are also enduring their own issues which are given some sincerity combined with the intense action material. The feud between Cobra Kai’s top female fighter, Tory (Peyton List) and Daniel’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) gets more complicated. Sam’s mother, Amanda (Courtney Henggeler) accidentally gets Tory fired from her restaurant job, which prompts Amanda to try all season to make amends somehow when she discovers the younger woman is poor. Life can get entangled a lot this way in “Cobra Kai.” Johnny finally begins a real romance with neighbor Carmen (Vanessa Rubio) but alas, her son Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) is an Eagle Fang, meaning he’s prone to getting caught up in the brawls or injuring himself during competition. Johnny’s estranged son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) remains Cobra Kai’s top fighter, even if he starts to have second thoughts about Kreese’s methods. There is also an important new character this season, Kenny (Dallas Young), who just moved into the neighborhood and is instantly bullied at the middle school and naturally gravitates to the Cobra Kai dojo. By the end of the season he can plan ambushes in the school library with brutal kicks through bookshelves. 

A smart decision by the showrunners is to parallel the Daniel/Johnny relationship with that of Kreese and Terry Silver. In “The Karate Kid Part III,” Silver was one of those bizarre villains who threatened to expose the absurdities of the overall franchise. He was a billionaire who fought with Kreese in Vietnam and helped him open his dojo. When Silver realized Daniel beat Cobra Kai, he decided to torment the kid. The writers seem to know how wacky this was with some brilliant, self-referential dialogue early this season when Kreese seeks out his old buddy, and Silver reflects that he had become a crazy adult torturing a teenager. But the rest of their tag team effort has a great, maniacal air where tension builds when Silver starts wanting to give more orders around the dojo. Thomas Ian Griffith nearly upstages Martin Kove with his devilish grins and one particularly brutal beat down of an aspiring student (played with goofball perfection by Paul Walter Hauser). Obsessed with winning and “controlling the Valley” (whatever that means), Kreese has invited a real viper into his nest.

“Cobra Kai” is keeping alive some of the comedy and drama styles that were so common in ‘90s TV. Of course it does. Its main driving force is precisely nostalgia. There’s none of the dreariness of other modern high school shows. These high schoolers watch ‘70s martial arts movies at the local drive-in and get into showdowns with their enemies while grabbing popcorn. Someone gets their hair shaved off by the rival dojo and it’s as impactful as when someone gets traumatized in “Game of Thrones.” There’s even a prom where Tory shows off the stylish dancer hiding beneath her threatening exterior. When the dojos meet at the climactic tournament the fighting is so low rent compared to fancier productions that it becomes even more fun. Clips from the previous “Karate Kid” movies are constantly spliced in like mental flashbacks, to remind us what’s being referenced, while also marking the passage of time. The season finale ends on a worthy cliffhanger when for some all seems lost while others get betrayed. “Cobra Kai” might be hard to believe but it remains easy to get lost in.

Cobra Kai” season four begins streaming Dec. 31 on Netflix.