‘Cobra Kai’ Season 3: What Went Wrong?

From ‘The Karate Kid’ to ‘Apocalypse Now’ in two easy steps

When we last left ‘Cobra Kai’, the world’s favorite karate-themed teen soap opera, Robby, the estranged teen son of Sensei Johnny, had kicked Miguel, Sensei Johnny’s protegé, off a balcony, paralyzing him. Miguel and Johnny had been fighting over Samantha, the daughter of Sensei Daniel, Sensei Johnny’s lifelong rival. Meanwhile, Tori, a bad-girl plot device, had scarred Samantha with a cool slashing thing mounted on her knuckle. Once upon a time, this was ‘The Karate Kid,’ a beloved but nearly-forgotten mid-80s underdog sports story. Now ‘Cobra Kai’ is one evil twin plot away from being Days of Our Lives.

‘Cobra Kai’, when it debuted on the now-forgotten YouTube Red a couple of years ago, pulled off the nifty trick of making Johnny Lawrence,  The Karate Kid’s secondary villain, the anti-hero of the entire saga. Played perfectly by William Zabka, we first see Johnny an alcoholic loser who’s never gotten over his humiliating loss at a regional teen karate championship nearly 40 years ago. The show doesn’t make Ralph Macchio’s Daniel, the original Karate Kid, the bad guy, but they do portray him as a bit of a self-righteous drip, while Johnny gets all the best lines and a chance at redemption. Season one serves as a kind of franchise reset, as Johnny and Daniel’s best students face off in a karate championship. In a normal universe, that would wrap the whole thing in a gi and send it on its way.

Then Season 2 introduces the real villain, Johnny’s former sensei John Kreese, played by a grizzled Martin Kove. Within about 90 minutes, the rivalry between Cobra Kai, the dojo, not the show, and Daniel’s Miyagi-do consumes every teenager in the San Fernando Valley, and dominates the local news. Karate championships are boring. This show now has more public battles royale than Avengers: Endgame. Karate-chopping, leg-sweeping teenagers destroy a mall food court and an entire high schoolBut the best scenes are really the side ones where Miguel teaches Johnny how to use Facebook.

Season 3, rather than return to the roots of what made Season one and the original movie so fun, has tripled down on the set pieces. Johnny and Daniel battle a bunch of thugs in a chop-shop garage for no particular reason. Teens do karate at a juvenile detention center, an abandoned amusement park conveniently located next door to an actual amusement park, and at a private home. Also, they steal a deadly snake from the “Ventura Zoo”, which doesn’t actually exist. Why stop there? Why not stage a karate fight at a hospital, or at Dodger Stadium, or in the United States Capitol building?

Scraw! Jacob Bertrand as ‘Hawk’ in Cobra Kai.

Meanwhile, though John Kreese doesn’t have mustaches to twirl, he might as well. He looms like a damn menace in every scene. And even when he’s not in the scene, there’s a chance he could appear in the scene. Cobra Kai never misses an opportunity to have a character walk in  out of nowhere, say something ominous, and walk out, fists clenched. Improv troupes would expel members for some of this excessive scene-barging. Kreese is the worst offender by far. Something normal is happening and then he comes around the corner, backed by five to 10 dipshit karate teens, and says something like “you missed your chance, now this is war.”

Speaking of war, the show wastes countless minutes giving Kreese an origin story that starts with outtakes from American Graffiti and ends up as ‘Platoon’ for dummies. He gets into a karate fight with a jock over a girl in a poodle skirt. Eventually, he ends up in a North Vietnamese cage match with his evil sergeant, dangled over a pit of snakes.  The Karate Kid has suddenly become Apocalypse Now.

‘Cobra Kai’ has been getting some crap for its representation of Asians. The show’s main Asian character, Mr. Miyagi, has been dead for decades. But his presence hovers over the show, Yoda-like. Season 3 spends two episodes following Daniel back to Miyagi’s home of Okinawa, so Daniel can save his car dealership in Encino somehow. It presents Okinawa in a variety of ways, not all of them stereotypical, but it’s all to serve the white hero’s mystical karate quest. But representation is hardly the show’s main problem.

Cobra Kai nearly dies every episode because of absurd plot twists and an absolute show-crushingly bad performance by Tanner Buchanan as Robby, one of the worst teen actors in TV history. Without the peg to the original Karate Kid, this would all make even less sense than it already does. Let’s not pretend it’s worth much at this point. The show is deliciously terrible.  But I still watched the third entire season in less than a week while my brain oozed out my ears. Then again, I liked The O.C. and Beverly Hills 90210, even as they completely skidded off the rails, and I watched the entire first season of 13 Reasons Why. There are few teen soaps, or martial arts movies, that can’t hold my attention. Combine the two and you’ve got a magic formula.

It’s hard to not enjoy the screeching bird on the soundtrack whenever the character of “Hawk” goes into karate action. William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence is still the best character on TV, the last living man who believes that the 1980s were awesome. His relationship with Miguel (and Miguel’s mother), is still really cute. How can you not love a teacher who tells his paralyzed student, “your legs are pussies”? He also sets Miguel’s foot on fire. And takes him to a Dee Snider concert where, mysteriously, every single person in the crowd is under the age of 30, and most aren’t white.

Maybe Cobra Kai’s biggest appeal is showing us a Los Angeles that’s not locked down, not suffering from a COVID outbreak, and not engaged in a political struggle any bigger than “my dojo is better than your dojo.” If only we could all solve our problems with a big karate brawl, until the next big karate brawl.

That would be badass.

Cobra Kai
We’re not gonna take it! Johnny Lawrence teaches his prize student the ways of the 80s in ‘Cobra Kai’.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

25 thoughts on “‘Cobra Kai’ Season 3: What Went Wrong?

  • January 15, 2021 at 7:48 am
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    Yeah, it lost it’s fun. It’s like this evil ominous show that seems to play more on violent undertones that show zero discipline and direction. This season was nothing but doom and nostalgia. They literally had to cram every former cast member from a movie into the show. There was literally no plot this season. No start point, or finish or anyplace inbetween.

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  • February 4, 2021 at 4:22 pm
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    This review is stupid

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      • February 5, 2021 at 9:34 pm
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        First of all…the actors are great and why would you hate on every single move they make. It’s literally a show. And who said that the snake they stole had to be from a REAL ZOO. This article is so rude to the people who made cobra kai and the people who are part of Cobra kai. And if I were them reading this I would be upset for getting hate on literally every detail. I suggest this article get taken down.

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        • February 5, 2021 at 9:49 pm
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          Cobra Kai is classic trash TV. I love it, but it ain’t art. Suggestion denied!

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          • February 16, 2021 at 12:44 am
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            You are so weird sir, how can you not like it, its one of the best things to ever come out of history, and i get people dont like robby because of what happend at the school with miguel, but tanner buchanan isn’t a bad actor at all, the karate kid films are some of the best films in my opinion to ever exist, and i got a big suprise when cobra kai was coming out, to be honest I thought it would be a bit crap, but i was shocked when I watched it back in 2018, and ive been obsessed with it since, i get that its you’re opinion neal, but i think this review has pissed a lot of fans off, but cobra kai is the best thing ever, but I suppose people have their own opinions, but “one of the worst teen actors in tv history”, are you seriously deluded mate 😂 you need to get help if you actually think that, tanner buchanan is probably one of the best cobra kai actors, simply because of his story and development, and the emotion it shows through the show, like how john kreese brainwashed robby into joining cobra kai and been on his side, also when Johnny comest to the cobra kai dojo to confront kreese, and after kreese and johnny have been fighting for not long the way robby says his line, its just the emotion and you can really see his character change to this angry, violent teen, but again it isn’t his fault, basically im just tryna explain to you.
            Davey

          • February 16, 2021 at 6:28 pm
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            I understand what is going on in the show. And I don’t know if it is one of the best things to come out of history, but I do enjoy watching it.

          • February 16, 2021 at 6:28 pm
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            I haven’t had fans get this mad at me since an article 20 years ago where I said Green Day was better than Led Zeppelin. Which wasn’t true then or now but I was in a mood.

      • June 29, 2021 at 2:47 am
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        “Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt, you don’t even– you’re glib. You don’t even know what Cobra Kai is. It’s bad TV. It’s wrong. I can enjoy bad TV. I’m not saying that’s not real. Buchanon can’t act. There’s no such thing as a fun show with ’80s references that’s made well. Why are there karate fights in different locations in a karate show? I don’t get it. This portrayal of any non-American culture is racist.”
        -Neal Pollack.

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  • February 8, 2021 at 9:27 pm
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    Before you start criticizing this show, I think you should know more about it. First of all, it isn’t Johnny who fights over Samantha, it is Robbie, his son. So maybe you should get your facts straight. Secondly, I am especially proud of the actors and actresses performances, especially the actor of Johnny and Hawk. Robbie did perfectly fine. You are being too harsh on this show. You must admit it is entertaining and that is mostly all that counts.

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  • February 9, 2021 at 12:45 am
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    Okay, I concur with the second part of the review — the part praising Cobra Kai for its mix of badassery and comedy — but I will have to respectfully disagree with the rest of it. I feel like Robby’s performance really wasn’t bad at all, and let’s be honest here. Karate fights are awesome, who gives a shit where they’re situated? Hell, it makes it even cooler that they fight in such unusual places — it’s not like fights never break out at those sorts of places; for instance, where I live, there’re a bunch of fight hotspots you go to when you want to hang out and either watch or join (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/clarke-quay-fight-4-arrested-police-force-allegations-14126286 and yes, this is a part of growing up, embrace it) so it’s not *so* unrealistic it requires a suspension of disbelief. Kreese can be annoying, yes, but he serves his purpose and his backstory reinforces the central theme of Cobra Kai — that neither villains nor heroes are always unidimensional. Look at Johnny! In the original Karate Kid, everybody hated the jerk, but once you see his whole backstory, with his perspective on what Daniel did with Ali and Sid treating him like shit at home, he suddenly becomes a guy whose life just didn’t go so well.

    Again, I respect your opinion, but I just can’t see how you think it’s trash TV when it’s so… developed. Sure, from the outside it *looks* like it’s being carried by choreography and a few good moments, but when I look at the macro, I see a series that fully lives up to the legacy of a truly fantastic 1980s film. Look at Hawk and Demetri — in the beginning, one quiet deformed kid and one mouthy diffident geek. Then, Hawk gains confidence, it looks good, but he becomes a bully under Kreese, while Demetri slowly and agonizingly learns to fight and stiffen his spine. At the LaRusso residence fight, Hawk looks around at the mindless destruction he’s wreaked and finally reconnects with Demetri to form an absolutely fantastic unit. Raw emotion. That’s what I felt when I saw Hawk save Demetri from his second broken arm. Demetri’s romance with Yasmine was a really nice touch — one a formerly popular girl who learns how it feels to be a loser and the other a former loser whose star is rising. It’s magnificent, well written, and, best of all, cute as hell.

    I refuse to believe you didn’t grin at your screen when, in the final scene of the last episode of Season 3, Johnny and Daniel bow to each other before teaching the combined Eagle Fang and Miyagi-Do classes. This is what I’m talking about. There are definitely big ‘moments’ in the show, but there are also little ones, appearing insignificant but meaning so much. Look at how Cobra Kai started to accept Robby into their ranks when he opened that bag and displayed that snake. The lines are cleverly written — who didn’t smile a bit at “He likes to eat… Clarence.” I mean, come on, what do you mean it’s Trash TV? It’s nothing short of masterful. I’ll be the first to admit I teared up a bit when Daniel’s old friend read Mr Miyagi’s letters to him in that beautiful Japanese house.

    Cobra Kai offers an amazingly satisfying experience; tumultuous though it may be, every piece of every puzzle just… aligns exactly how it’s supposed to. Every masterpiece of a character is developed just enough to grant them a place in our hearts without making their backstories irrelevant. Tory is so much more than a plot device, man. She serves as the perfect antithesis to Sam; her much rougher life combined with how both her and Sam like the same man illustrates just how different two characters can be while still sharing shocking similarities. The scene with Robby and Tory at the juvie administration center and the tip she somewhat reluctantly gives Robby about home life gives us a perfect glimpse into her vulnerable side; so does the scene with her and Miguel at the playground with the plane at 10:36, and of course when she asks him to make a move. It’s just so… engrossing. HOW are you not affected, man? I don’t get it!

    God, I love every *second* of Cobra Kai.

    I rest my case.

    Reply
    • February 9, 2021 at 1:24 am
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      Don’t get me wrong, I do love Cobra Kai, but without Zabka this thing is 90210 with fists and roundhouses. I will take it any day over so-called “quality” TV, but I have no illusions about what it is.

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  • February 10, 2021 at 4:26 pm
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    Umm Robbys acting is great you ain’t have to say alla that.And Cobra Kai is a great show but nice try luv❤️.

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  • February 10, 2021 at 11:16 pm
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    I agree with you Neal Robbie acting sucks. The first season was great. Second season better fight scenes. But the third season went all wrong. When the love interest between Johnny and Miguel’s mom becomes more interesting than anything else that’s a problem. The fight scenes in season three are horrible and super slow. Daniel moves so slow and you can always tell when his double comes in for the fight scenes.
    Johnny and Daniel were better child actors back in the 80s than these kids are in cobra kai. But honestly, it’s good passing time tv. And because we all loved the original karate kid here we are staying loyal to this show Cobra Kai. I also agree the best part is Miguel showing johnny how to use the Internet and Facebook trying to impress his ex. I think Ali’s character coming back was cool. I was hoping she was gonna stir the pot. I think her getting back with Johnny would have been good. Kinda looked like Daniel still had a thing for her too. Lol Larusso’s cousin at the auto shop is funny I like his character. Haha
    Well, hopefully, season four will be better. Work on those fight scenes and johnny is the best character in the whole series. And when he or hawk fights they are the only two that look believable. “Ay Daniel son” 😀

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  • February 13, 2021 at 10:38 am
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    LOL, I like how for being the the greatest living American Author I’ve never heard about you until coming across this pathetic review. Upon clicking upon your link I see what is an attempt at humor or grandiose visions of yourself. I am curious if you are just jealous of people more successful of you upon reading your review.

    Reply
    • February 13, 2021 at 10:52 am
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      I am envious of people more successful than me, but I am not envious of you!

      Reply
  • February 14, 2021 at 10:31 pm
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    Why is no one talking about how Amanda LaRusso (Courtney Henggeler), is the worst? Everything about her acting, character and know-it-all, eye rolling moments detract from the people who know how to act.
    The first season was pretty good but now it’s just gone off the rails.
    And what’s up with the closeups? Damn!

    Reply
  • February 23, 2021 at 10:01 pm
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    I agree with you. I enjoy Johnny the most and his relationship with Miguel too. But the melees are so ridiculous. And seeing Robbie who seems to be more impressionable than a baby drift around is frustrating. His choices make no sense. And why are there no consequences for these kids? But I watched the whole season…though I did hope it would conclude the story.

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  • March 12, 2021 at 10:16 am
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    Couldn’t agree more with this. The first season or two, the nostalgic factor kept me going, but that dissipates by Season 3. Each and every character pretty much makes the wrong decision at all times and it becomes tiresome. And there are no repercussions for viciously assaulting someone in this show UNLESS the writers want it to drive the plot (e.g., Johnny getting arrested; Robbie in jail). But Hawk can go around town breaking people’s arms, and Kreese can let him beat someone’s face into a pulp during class with no punishment. I’ve spent my whole life watching shows and movies which require a healthy dose of suspension of belief, but this show takes it to an unbearable level.

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  • March 30, 2021 at 7:24 pm
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    Why is everyone booing you? You’re right.

    (As a disclaimer, I used to be a semi-active member of the Cobra-Kai fandom. Being a young woman at university actively engaging in literary and methodological criticism on a day-to-day basis, I decided to write up a short feminist critique of the show. Holy smokes. That went over like a fart in church. I thought I was going to get doxxed for giving constructive criticism about I show I actually liked. This fandom is toxic af–mostly because there are a bunch of bros who are wayyy too into it and act like Johnny Lawrence c. season 1.)

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    • March 30, 2021 at 7:51 pm
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      Eventually my opinion will be considered canon. Thanks for your input!

      Reply
  • April 8, 2021 at 10:58 am
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    The first 1 season was unexpectedly enjoyable. Then season 2 came out, and to my freak’n surprise – very enjoyable. First two seasons were brilliantly created by the writers. Then season 3, with Netflix taking ownership, has been painful to watch: slow, boring, predictable, bland… . And after watching the 3rd season I cancelled my Netflix again (I cancel Netflix when I disagree with their actions, like when they took off “Cheers” – I protest with my wallet).

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  • August 10, 2021 at 5:53 pm
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    I hate the LA centricity of the last point… Christ, the thing is watched all over the world, not just LA.. Why would we give af about unlockeddown LA

    Reply

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