Cobra Kai: Get teenage kicks right through the night

The only reason Cobra Kai exists is because of nostalgia, of course. 

And yet, it’s proven over five seasons now to be a campy, fist-pumping time capsule of ‘80s excess, mixing teen pathos that wouldn’t be out of place on Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place with butt-kicking kung-fu frenzies. 

I’ve long gotten rather jaded and tired of the endless revivals, reboots and prequels of my childhood obsessions, but somehow I just can’t get enough of Cobra Kai, the continuation of the long-ago ‘80s Karate Kid franchise starring Ralph Macchio. I inhaled the brand new season 5 over just a few days (which for me, with my dislike of “binging” TV, is damned fast). 

The characters in season 5 of Cobra Kai are nowhere near as “realistic” as they felt in Season 1, where you truly empathised with Johnny Lawrence’s downbeat life (the great William Zabka) and rooted for his quixotic struggles. Cobra Kai’s genius was focusing on the bullying “loser” of the first Karate Kid and giving him real emotional depth. There’s something uniquely pathetic about the vain teenage jock brought down to earth, fumbling his way through life, and Cobra Kai’s first seasons were interesting because they also made us question whether Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso was the “good guy” after all in The Karate Kid

Over five seasons now, Cobra Kai has far exceeded in runtime the three ‘80s movies it’s based on. It’s widened its cast to include the children of the original stars, various other nerds and bullies and hangers-on in the endless karate battles of the San Fernando Valley, and enough teenage angst to fill the entire CW network. It’s utterly unsubtle, the characters make stupid mistakes and yeah, the roller-coaster of teenage love affairs and constant emotional reversals can get a bit old, but they’re always broken up by another entertainingly silly karate bout before too long. 

As it goes on, Cobra Kai really embraces that ‘80s junk-food aesthetic where a somewhat grounded movie becomes increasingly over-the-top and extreme as the franchise goes on (see also: Rocky, Rambo, Lethal Weapon, etc.) Season 5 of Cobra Kai feels like the Rocky IV of the franchise to date – broad, swaggering and confident in its own ridiculousness. 

Part of the pleasure of the latest series is Thomas Ian Griffith’s scenery-chewing turn as Terry Silver, who struts around sneering and smirking like a Bond villain from a Roger Moore movie. Griffith was the villain in the overwrought Karate Kid Part III, nobody’s favourite KK film, and yet his Gordon Gekko meets Bruce Lee antagonist gives the last few seasons of Cobra Kai a punchy energy. 

The bombastic emotional music and rising stakes (it’s not just a battle for one karate dojo now – it’s a battle for the future of karate in the world!) are pure cheese, but I don’t mind. There’s a lingering pomposity in much of “peak TV” that turns me off at times, and there’s something about Cobra Kai’s economical 30-35 minute episodes and brisk 10-part seasons that aren’t quite as daunting as some shows. 

There is very little Jackie Chan-style elegance or invention in Cobra Kai’s kung fu fighting. It’s blunt and rarely pretty brawling, and despite the gentle teachings of sensei Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) hanging over the series, it’s almost always fighting in anger, with emotion running hot. Despite all their skills, the characters in Cobra Kai are constantly falling short of their lofty ideals.

Perhaps I love Cobra Kai because it’s pitched directly at me, the fumbling teenager who watched the original movie in cinemas and is now a 50-something striver just like Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. We all want to make something more out of our lives and are vaguely astonished when we get to the midpoint. There’s also something optimistic in how old foes mellow out and become weathered allies – season 5 features the “villains” from Karate Kid 1, 2 and 3 all teaming up to fight the big bad. Gosh darn it if I didn’t almost want to cheer. There’s hope for everybody in the world of Cobra Kai. (Except Terry Silver, boo, hiss.)

I wouldn’t call Cobra Kai the finest show on TV or anything, but somehow its open-hearted eagerness to please and throwback absurdity suits me a lot more than sitting through more games of thrones and lords and their rings. Forget your hobbits and dragons – a good old crane kick will leave me satisfied almost every time. Teenage kicks, they’re hard to beat. 

*And yes, that’s a lyric by the Undertones quoted in this post title, from the late John Peel’s favourite song of all time.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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