SXSW 2019: COBRA KAI Season 2 Remains Impossibly Good [Spoiler Free]

A sneak peek of the first two episodes of Season 2

There will not be any spoilers for Season 2 found below, but there will be plot discussion of Cobra Kai Season 1

Everything about Cobra Kai is good. As a film critic that’s not something I’m really supposed to say. But I just did. Every time I get the chance to talk with someone about it, I use the term “impossibly good”. The writing, the nostalgia, the drama, the cast, the action… It’s impossibly good not just because it works on every conceivable level, but also because it really shouldn’t work at all.

But let me take a step back. Cobra Kai is a web series that is putting YouTube’s paid platform (YouTube Premium) on the map as a high profile property with a great critical reception and a known property. That property would, of course, be The Karate Kid. Coming some 35 years after the original film, Cobra Kai follows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso and William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence into their middle ages and reignites the karate rivalry we all know and love. To be honest, everything I just said is why Cobra Kai shouldn’t work. Web series’ aren’t something I’ve ever been interested in before. And while I know they have legions of fans… my sense is that none of them have ever really come close to the quality level Cobra Kai is displaying. Also a Pat Morita-less continuation of the Karate Kid story starring a couple of middle aged guys attempting to perhaps cash in on nostalgia or their former glory sounds frankly almost gross. Yet, while certainly celebrating and occasionally reveling in nostalgia is a key factor in Cobra Kai’s success, the approach to this series is sincere, knowing, and heart-felt. Much like Rocky Balboa and the Creed films have integrated Rocky’s aging into the narrative to make it more dramatically potent rather than something to ignore, Cobra Kai is in no way hiding that our protagonists are in their middle ages. It instead embraces and explores this fantastically well, fleshing out Daniel and Johnny’s fates as middle aged men with a shocking level of depth and interesting insight while bringing in a new generation of teenaged karate students that are equally as well fleshed out and realized as the older generation.

It’s in the younger generation where the writing on Cobra Kai truly becomes genius. Executive Producers and showrunners Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg (who have all written and directed episodes themselves) were present for this special world premiere event at SXSW 2019 where the first two episodes of season 2 were shown. They discussed their foundational approach to Cobra Kai as a continuance of the mentor/mentee, intergenerational element that was so key to the success of The Karate Kid. Yes, Pat Morita’s legendary (and Oscar nominated) Mr. Miyagi was absolutely crucial to this story and his presence isn’t possible in Cobra Kai as Morita has passed away. But what the showrunners rightly recognized is that characters of differing ages (and genders/races/creeds) bouncing off of one another in interesting ways is the core of this, or any, strong drama. Season 1 of Cobra Kai geniusly introduces us to an array of younger characters and proceeds to put them through arcs that turn the worldview of Karate Kid on its head. It would make a ton of sense, for instance, for both Daniel and Johnny to have sons, and to have those sons fight each other in this show. Instead, Daniel’s youngest son has zero interest in karate and his daughter falls in love with Billy’s star pupil Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) who is related to neither sensei and who feels the most like the Daniel surrogate among the younger generation of characters. And Billy’s son, resenting his mostly absentee father, choses to train under Daniel. It’s great melodrama, and even several secondary teen characters have modern and relevant arcs which allow for an exploration of bullying, popularity, diversity, new technology, and more.

While the acting in Cobra Kai isn’t its strongest suit, the cast overall does a pretty good job. This is still a web series, so the pace of the production is fast and the budgets are low. With a dozen or so characters to juggle, many of them being teens, the actors face some challenges. But they’re all game and Cobra Kai has cast an ethnically diverse group of young people to represent a more accurate 2019 society in a way that feels effortless and natural.

So the writing is fantastic, and the show overcomes all the other aforementioned potential pitfalls to be one of the most exciting new series’ of the year. But what about the karate?! Welp, that’s also pretty great! While this isn’t an “action” series, per se, the actors do a fair amount of karate themselves, and the various matches are captured with clarity and excitement. We’re not talking grand, operatic, wire-fu battles or anything like that. It’s just solidly done and bolstered heavily by the investment we have in the characters and the stories that each physical confrontation tell.

I felt perfectly fine more or less reviewing Season 1 of Cobra Kai here because Season 2 continues immediately where 1 left off, and continues every single story line while adding in a new wrinkle in Johnny’s former sensei and all-time great 1980s cinematic villain John Kreese (Martin Kove), who was introduced in the final moments of Season 1. There’s absolutely no drop off in quality here in Season 2. Just 2 episodes in the main conflicts of a new season are very well established and feature plenty of nostalgia, growth areas for characters, compelling drama, and even one great fight. Kreese’s presence is going to be a major strength area for Season 2 as his motivations remain entirely unclear by the end of the second episode. He’s a wild card and Kove appears to be relishing every minute of his screen time. Daniel finds himself more fully embracing the role of sensei of Miyagi-Do Karate, even as his daughter Sam (Mary Mouser) considers training under him once again as she did in her youth. And Johnny must find a way to get back into the good graces of his son Robby (Tanner Buchanan) while also continuing to challenge his students after they won the All Valley Karate Tournament at the end of the first season. The dynamics are all still there for dynamite, modern, cliff-hanging drama and entertainment that recalls the best of the 1980s and explores the modern implications and angles of the story as well.

Cobra Kai Season 2 had me (and our packed house audience) cheering, laughing, tearing up, and pumping my fists at the action. It’s got a massively broad appeal for fans of coming of age dramas, 1980s nostalgia, action/martial arts aficionados, or even just YouTube addicts. The show has earned every ounce of buzz it has generated and is so good it might be worth a subscription fee to YouTube Premium solely to experience this single program. The interwebs are even abuzz that perhaps the final big name hold out from the film thus far, Ms. Elizabeth Shue, may even be returning to reprise her role. There’s no evidence of this in the first two episodes, but the showrunners certainly did not rule out the possibility. Cobra Kai is a brilliant, broad appeal piece of entertainment that YouTube and everyone involved should be very proud of. Anyone who’s been on the fence has until April 24th, 2019 to catch up on the first season and get ready to experience the next chapter in this impossibly good series.

And I’m Out.

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