"Cobra Kai" Season 5 Review

The thing about "Cobra Kai" that makes it such a huge success also makes it a baffling oddity to those unsold on its premise. To make affluent, suburban California karate into something equally sacred and important as, say, high school football in West Texas...that's strange enough. But at five seasons in, with all the goofy '80s nostalgia petering out and operating purely on its own mythos at this point, to make recreational martial arts into some sort of political and spiritual force that engulfs everyone in its wake is so relentlessly weird. But it works. Netflix pours money into this show now with the confidence of a surefire hit. It's evidenced in quite a few splashy visual effects gimmicks, with Sam LaRusso fighting herself in a dream sequence straight out of Rise of Skywalker and then later a digitally de-aged William Zabka appearing to Kreese during a therapy session...straight out of any Marvel or Star Wars property. Between this and the deep-cuts guest stars from Karate Kid Part III that pop up, it's clear that what started as a lark for Youtube Red--a fun retelling of the kitschy Karate Kid story from the opposite angle--has fully morphed into a miniature form of a cinematic universe. The evolution is fitting, even if it has completely removed all of the tongue-in-cheek bite that made the first few seasons such genuinely engaging comedy and character study.

Creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg decided early on to lean hard into the camp and into the dorky teen melodrama aspect that runs parallel with the first Karate Kid film. Audiences accepted that, eagerly even. Now, the philosophy has shifted completely into a po-faced CW series by way of serious martial arts cinema tropes (effectively making the leap to what Karate Kid Part II was). The show takes place entirely in an alternate universe where fifty-to-seventy year old white men hold the mystical powers of Shaolin sorcerers, roving bands of teens break into epic hand-to-hand rumbles at least once per semester, and somehow the fate of the entire San Fernando Valley is at the mercy of psychopathic millionaires intent on conquering the...strip mall dojo business.

Is any of that bad? No, not necessarily. It's still an engaging watch, but in the same way a prime time soap opera can be: the longform relationship pinball and unyielding need to expand the world has provided longevity and spectacle unforeseen by those who created it. The fight sequences have gotten better and better since Netflix threw their production heft behind "Cobra Kai," and the new season provides a trip to Mexico (similar to Season 3's visit to Okinawa) to provide some change of scenery and the opportunity for real world danger to creep in. It's a natural progression, perhaps at the expense of what made the initial smaller story more charming, but at its core the show is still goofy fun.

The early seasons were fun in a completely different way. A more sly, scrappy way that put more emphasis on Zabka as an unlikely, late-in-the-game breakout star surrounded by young actors who all thrived on his comedic energy. Now, the self-aware asides about the absurdity of karate dojo rivalries have waned, and for better or worse the writers and performers have made the transition to accepting and respecting the hallowed canon of the Miyagi-Verse as a self-sustaining mechanism. The current version of the show serves more as a SAG retirement benefit for any and all original 1980s cast members and a reliable showcase for the younger ones in order to propel them to bigger and better things. 

This isn't a unique problem. In today's post-post-post (maybe like three more "posts") modern arena of pop culture riffing, shows like "Rick and Morty"--which used to take great delight in wagging a finger at stupid audiences who coo like children at any uninspired serialized storytelling--have caved in on themselves with the weight of their own ironic participation in "lore." In the case of "Cobra Kai," it's not nearly as jarring, disappointing, or even surprising that the world-building has taken center stage. It just is what it is. Eventually, the one rogue karate dojo has to become a more wide-scale threat, the one unhinged Vietnam vet has to be overshadowed by a far more dangerous foe, and there simply has to be more at stake for every character beyond the results of a sports tournament. That's just how television functions. What some might consider a show 'finding its groove' I tend to consider it 'slowly shifting into autopilot,' but at least "Cobra Kai" maintains a daring absurdity in its intensity.

And this is not to say the show isn't still funny. Zabka still makes for a delightfully uncouth oaf as Johnny Lawrence, even if the character's evolution has, by necessity, defanged him as a comedic presence. The snappy dialogue among the teen characters is still there, lurking underneath all of the angst about Sensei's lessons, relationship woes, and their failures at the latest tournament. Ralph Macchio and Courtney Henggeler still have terrific chemistry as a married couple. And all of it works because the show now has an extensive enough back catalogue of drama to draw upon. The new season's MVP for unexpected comedy effort is Yuji Okumuto as Chozen, playing against his character's "assassin" reputation from the second film in the franchise for a lot of wry laughs.

The show suffers from putting too much on the backs of Martin Kove and Thomas Ian Griffith as scummy cartoon villains Kreese and Silver, the internal logic of the story hanging on for dear life to the bizarre fixations of these boomer mustache-twirlers, but that might be intentional. Some of the younger cast fare better than others, too. Xolo Mariduena continues to be the standout, conveying a lot more emotional turmoil that his dialogue affords him, while Peyton List gets far more to do in this season as a double (triple?) agent in the evil camp with an even bigger chip on her shoulder. Meanwhile, Tanner Buchanan and Mary Mouser lead quite a few of the others in looking a little bit bored now that most of their narrative arcs have been sewn up.

Whenever "Cobra Kai" returns, I don't hesitate in binging the entire season in one gulp. While I'm being critical of how a few short years and an influx of budget have changed the show's dynamic, it maintains a good pace and a constant solid cliffhanger, and it still makes very good use of exploring the many gray areas that always existed within the original film series' doofy black-and-white narrative. Against all odds, this underdog of a series is still an All-Valley champ. I just wish it would surprise me with something more next season than how much Netflix is willing to pay for Hilary Swank to appear, (heaven forbid) a digitally resurrected Pat Morita.

Season Rating: B-

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