Cobra Kai season 1 review: No Mercy rules this Karate Kid sequel

Cobra Kai - Photo Credit: Guy D'Alema/Sony Pictures Television.
Cobra Kai - Photo Credit: Guy D'Alema/Sony Pictures Television. /

Watch Cobra Kai season 1 on Netflix

Cobra Kai season 1 sees old rivalries revived in this The Karate Kid sequel series.

Cobra Kai first debuted on YouTube before it moved over to Netflix. I’m glad it happened because I had no idea it even existed. It also explains why there was a Cobra Kai season 1 and 2 available to watch immediately at the same time for those who were confused.

I was old enough to see The Karate Kid in theaters when it was first released in 1984. (Don’t judge.) I was a 13-year-old and, like it did with millions of others, that movie struck a nerve. I went to see it and Ghostbusters, which was also released that summer, over and over again. That’s why I had mixed feelings when I heard there was a Karate Kid reboot of sorts coming to Netflix, but I had to give it a try.

My husband groaned the second I started it: “I forgot. You were a big Karate Kid fan, weren’t you?”

Yep, but clearly not a mega fan like Cobra Kai’s executive producers, Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg. They’re responsible for bringing back all the heart of the original movie that inspired this series while at the same time creating something even bigger.

My husband’s groan only lasted that one second. Before we knew it, we were both hooked!

What makes this series fun, and what I was worried any reboot would botch, was trying to revive the franchise by replacing old characters with new faces.

Nope. They’ve merged both.

Original characters, like Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) and his nemesis Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka), reprise their original roles.

Daniel did not marry Ali (played by Elisabeth Shue in the first Karate Kid movie), nor did she get back together with Johnny. She’s now a doctor married to a doctor and they live in Denver, in case you’re wondering how she turned out. There are plenty of nods to her as both men take turns reminiscing about her, and at one point, they even do so together over drinks!

Speaking of spirits of a different kind, Pat Morita who played the beloved “Mr. Miyagi” died in 2005. Cobra Kai pays homage to his character in many ways and even addresses when his fictional character crossed over. We learn he remained a very large part of Daniel’s life until his death, and what he taught Daniel still lives on.

Cobra Kai picks up with Johnny and Daniel, who are now middle-aged men. Daniel is married to Amanda (played by Courtney Henggeler). They have two children, Samantha (Mary Mouser) and her younger brother Anthony (Griffin Santopietro).

Daniel’s done very well for himself. He has a successful dealership that sells luxury cars, as well as used ones. At first, car salesman struck me as an odd choice of a profession until a scene in episode 10 reminded me why it actually makes perfect sense and was a brilliant choice by the writers.

It’s a definite flip from where Daniel started out. He was the poor kid, and Johnny was the rich kid. Johnny ended up not doing very well for himself. He’s broke, divorced and estranged from his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan).

He also seems stuck in the ’80s, which actually makes it fun. He’s racist, politically incorrect, and did I mentioned stuck in the ’80s? He has a cell phone, but that’s about it. He’s far from tech-savvy.

And what was this weird emotion Cobra Kai season 1 stirred in me for Johnny? Sympathy? Really? For the evil Johnny Lawrence? What?

Yes. He’s such a mess, but his teenage neighbor, Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña), starts to bring out the better side of him.

Miguel starts off as sort of being the new Karate Kid and Johnny the new Mr. Miyagi. But just like Miguel’s goodness starts to rub off on Johnny, so does some of Johnny’s darkness rub off on Miguel.

And then you have worlds crossing with Sam and Miguel having a relationship, Johnny’s son Robby working for his sworn enemy Daniel, and the rebirth of Cobra Kai, one of the most sullied dojos in Valley history.

Basically, it gets complicated.

Yet, we learn what happened to make Johnny so vile. He was only giving what he got, which wasn’t much love at home. That’s what makes him sympathetic. He never really wanted to be bad. Through Cobra Kai we learn his origin story, which gives us a better sense that there’s more to Johnny Lawrence than we knew and there’s always two sides to a story.

That’s the beauty of this whole series. Karate Kid fans will love all the references and flashbacks to the movie. Some of the most iconic scenes are re-created in one form or fashion. Even the Golf N Stuff date! Which this time takes place between Daniel’s daughter, Sam, and Miguel.

Also, if you were wondering about the music in that scene, EW addressed 12 Easter eggs in the series, and one of them clarified something I was wondering about: the song in the date scene. Yes, it was “Young Hearts” again, just played a bit differently than it was during Daniel and Ali’s date.

And of course, there’s the famous tournament scene. Daniel and Johnny once again find themselves pitted against each other, but through their students, Miguel and Robby.

Like so many things in the series, the script is flipped here, too, with Johnny finally getting his win. But is it satisfying?

Not exactly.

He taught his students to show no mercy, and Miguel does just that. Of course, he’s matched up against Robby, Johnny’s estranged son who hurts his shoulder during previous matches. Miguel spots the weakness and exploits it (against Johnny’s advice), which potentially costs Johnny any chance of salvaging the relationship he’s desperate to have with his son.

Speaking of striking things, it strikes me as amazing how much they packed into Cobra Kai season 1 considering each of the 10 episodes only lasts about 30 minutes. There are all the references to the old rivalries and storyline from the Karate Kid movie, but then they weave in modern themes and situations to create a series that addresses everything from bullying and class differences to father and son relationships.

The Cobra Kais this go around are not the coolest kids in school. They’re the nerds, the dweebs and the most picked on.

You’d think that would make them more sensitive to not doing that to others, but when they get a taste of confidence merged with skills, they start exacting revenge on the popular kids who were mean to them.

It’s another flip of the script. At first, I felt sorry for the kids and loved seeing them find their power through Cobra Kai, but then I was like, “Whoa. Okay, now they’re becoming like the old Cobra Kais.”

But we all have these struggles with good and bad, right? Both internally and externally.

It’s no wonder Cobra Kai topped Netlfix’s list of popular shows and movies as soon as it hit the streaming service. Even those who’ve never seen the movie or are only marginally familiar with it can relate to the characters, themes and situations, because at the end of the day it’s good old-fashioned storytelling at it’s finest. It really strikes a nerve with tons of heart and humor.

And for fans? It’s a trip down memory lane.

Oh, and speaking of memory. There’s no way I could ever forget “wax on, wax off,” but I had totally forgotten about Mr. Miyagi’s car collection. Daniel kept it!

That’s revealed in episode 10 and it totally made sense why he’d now have a car dealership. What a fun way to incorporate another passion and connection Daniel had with Mr. Miyagi.

There’s one last flashback that sets up season 1’s cliffhanger. During a conversation with Miguel, Johnny says his sensei, Kreese, had died. But guess what? Cobra Kai’s founding owner is very much still alive and, after winning All Valley, comes back to haunt Johnny.

Cobra Kai season 1 turned out to be The Karate Kid reboot I never knew I needed. It lives up to the dojo’s motto: “Strike hard. Strike fast. No mercy.”

I’m excited to start binging season 2 and see how it sets things up for a season 3.

Next. Cobra Kai season 3 release date and more. dark