Whether you are a critic, a fan, or something in-between, you have no doubt experienced the delicious pleasure of discovering a show or a band or a film before it breaks out.
You have also no doubt shared that the glum experience of watching that personal favorite lose something of its appeal as it seeks and finds a larger audience.
Cobra Kai on YouTube was a quirky, clever, nostalgic favorite that avoided the extremes of deconstruction and imitation. It wasn’t simply a repeat of the Karate Kid formula, but neither was it presenting the childhood movies as false memories.
Cobra Kai on Netflix is a different beast, and I spent half of the third season trying to convince myself that my growing disenchantment was generic sour grapes that the rest of the world had caught up to me and the show was now being talked about and promoted heavily.
Warning: From here on out there are plot spoilers.
The decline of Cobra Kai is less a matter of some colossal misstep than an overabundance of fan service combined with the stalling of any forward momentum. It’s not atypical that new shows, especially those that aren’t guaranteed to have long runs, will have satisfying but relatively complete story arcs in their first season or two. But once a show becomes open-ended, once culmination or cancellation is seen as something that must be perpetually deferred, they often become formulaic. Story arcs are contained in episodes, not seasons, and characters that were previously well defined become malleable to the needs of the episode or static caricatures of themselves. Comedy can sometimes sustain this character stasis a little better, but indeterminacy is a poison pill for a lot of drama.
It’s not just that Season 3 leans heavily on a romcom structure of shuffling partners (or in this case, allies), it’s that in doing so it takes otherwise individuated characters and renders them interchangeable. Robbie’s function becomes to fall under Kreese’s influence. Never mind that we’ve spent two seasons establishing him as a thoughtful, intelligent, young man who is capable of seeing past surface bluster and beginning to heal from his justifiable bitterness at his dad. Conversely, Eli must be redeemed not because the path to his change of heart has been carefully paved but because the season needs to end on a high note.
There are plausible explanations for both those changes. Eli questions Kreese occasionally; Robbie expresses anger at being turned over to the police. But one senses that these are in-the-moment emotions that would ebb and flow were they happening to real people. Miguel alternately sends Johnny away and then becomes too quickly loyal to him again. Sam has a two episode flirtation with cowardice so that we can have flashbacks of Daniel on the mat with Mike Barnes. Kreese gets a backstory not to deepen his character but to tease the cliffhanger everyone sees coming. (Speaking of evil karate incarnate….did anyone else think it weird that some sense of gender code prevented him from laying out Daniel’s wife when she slapped him but didn’t cause him to pause when Tory tried to kill Samantha and left her permanently scarred?)
Nowhere was the show’s increasing dependence on reliving the movies rather than rebooting the characters more evident than in the incessantly teased but ultimately underwhelming return of Ali. Elizabeth Shue is the most talented (or at least the most accomplished) of the films’ alums, but why bring Ali back and give her literally nothing to do? From her opening just-visiting-for-Christmas scene, nearly every thing about her appearance screams “cameo” in all caps.
Ali’s significance, especially to Johnny, has been trumpeted for two-and-a-half seasons. Yet the show is at its best is when it questions the metanarratives we construct out of high school memories. As Johnny learns about himself and, yes, matures, he questions the dogma of his childhood. But neither he nor the show even entertains the somewhat obvious notion that maybe the idea of Ali or the memory of Ali is more important to him than the actual person of Ali.
I know nothing about show negotiations, but I’d wager dollars to donuts that Shue was either asked to make or only agreed to make a limited engagement. So there is this weird disconnect between Ali’s importance to the mythology of the show and her actual lack of impact on either of the characters. She and Johnny go to Golf ‘N Stuff and then she feeds Johnny and Daniel the same analysis that Carmen and Amanda have been telling them for two years. And they listen because…well it’s Ali. So she gets to be the one who brings them together after being the one who allegedly caused them to fight in the first place.
There is a weird lack of jealousy about Ali from both Carmen and Amanda that is in some ways plausible — or would be if the show took more care to define these relationships better. When Daniel apologizes to Ali for how things ended between them, it comes across as Macchio apologizing to Shue for her character being written out of the second movie. Even this would be more interesting if there were more details about what happened between the characters than what happened between the movie producers and the actors.
One of the the things that is most enjoyable about shows with long runs or franchises with long lives is that we come to to know the characters better. Writing characters that change slowly but credibly is one of the hardest things to do. That’s what Seasons 1 and 2 of Cobra Kai did. In Season 3, they change too abruptly as the needs of melodrama dictate, causing us to question not just who the characters are now but also whether they ever actually were the people we were shown.
Will I watch Season 4? Of course I will, just like I’ll watch the next Marvel movie…expecting more of the same formula and lots of references to previous episodes used to underline what the plot has already made obvious.