I delve into the mystery behind Cobra Kai and its appeal to the masses.
Cobra Kai confuses the hell out of me. I am in shock and awe over just how beloved it is among fans. In the years since the show first hit YouTube Premium, I talked with a lot of them — both in-person and online. And I can’t recall a single instance where someone said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I don’t like it.”
Seriously. Not one. Not a single person I’ve spoken with who has seen the show has anything negative to say about it. In the age of the internet, where everyone is an expert, this is surprising. There’s always someone out there who has a contrary opinion. But not with Cobra Kai.
Okay, there are obviously plenty of people out there who probably don’t like it, but it is clear that there’s a real love for the show, even from me. But before I dig into why that is, I want to dig into why I’m so surprised. Why am I so shocked that people actually like the show?
To me, this is the huge mystery of Cobra Kai. Join me as I try to break this down and crack it.
No Disrespect, Cobra Kai, But…
This is probably going to be the hardest part for me to write without looking like a complete asshole. And, let’s be real, I probably won’t succeed. But I do want to at least say that I mean no disrespect to anyone who works on Cobra Kai.
The actual execution of Cobra Kai isn’t that great.
Its visual style is nothing to praise. Yes, it works for the show, but it very much looks like a series crafted from an ambitious YouTuber rather than a Hollywood filmmaker. The lighting is neutral, the camera moves mostly expected and utilitarian. It has no real visual identity to me other than kinda looking like a webseries. It does the job, but it’s not an eyecatcher.
The actors are serviceable, but not great. It’s a series that relies on a lot of legacy actors — many of whom haven’t done a lot of acting since the original Karate Kid series. And it shows. No, they’re not awful, but there’s a stiffness to their movement and line delivery that feels unseasoned. This criticism applies to much of the younger cast as well, who are still honing their craft and performing admirably. That’s not to say they can’t or won’t get better, but they just feel a bit raw and stiff. Again, the acting isn’t awful or even bad. Like the visual style, it gets the job done.
The writing of the show is also…just okay. If you walk into any one scene out of context, it’s hard to take seriously. Many lines feel like they are pulled out of a soap opera, with a ton of cringey lines. Though while the actual lines and moment-to-moment aren’t amazing, they too get the job done.
Finally, there are the actual fight scenes. They range from hard to watch to pretty good. In these fight scenes, it’s clear to see that characters and Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso aren’t as flexible as they used to be. And yet, we’re to believe they are pretty good at what they do. The same goes for some of the prized Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do students. It kind of brings me back to TV shows from the ‘90s. We’re just supposed to take their word for it that the martial arts is good. On average, I’d say pretty much what I’ve said about every other facet of the show. It gets the job done. It drives the narrative forward.
So, Is Cobra Kai Even Good?
Before you get upset, I’m not here to say that Cobra Kai is trash and that you should feel bad for liking it. The exact opposite, in fact. Like many of you, I have fallen in love with the characters and narrative of Cobra Kai. And yet, none of this changes any of the criticisms I have of what’s being offered. It is all these disparate elements that show what a mystery Cobra Kai is. How can a show with all these mediocrities be amazing?
This series is perhaps the best example of a series being more than the sum of its parts. And no, I’m not even gonna pull the nostalgia card on this one. Yes, it does lean into the past. But as someone who has seen the old Karate Kid movies, it’s not the nostalgia that drives the story forward for me. It’s just icing on the cake.
In reality, this is a show that has it where it counts.
The Mystery of Cobra Kai Revealed
Yeah, I know. Earlier on I talked about how the writing in Cobra Kai wasn’t that great, right? Well, not quite. What I meant was that the writing of the specific dialogue wasn’t great. But we can’t forget that writing goes beyond the lines of dialogue on the page. Perhaps the most important aspect of the writing has to do with its structure.
Cobra Kai is a master class of playing up a core concept to its benefit. A story about warring karate dojos may be silly on the surface, but it has strong structure and character motivations underneath.
First, let’s start with the characters. We have the down and out Johnny Lawrence. He’s a former bully and alcoholic who used to be a star of his karate dojo. You have his former rival Daniel LaRusso, who was instrumental in knocking down Johnny decades back. He’s retained a lot of what made him a good person and is seen as a foil to Johnny.
And then you have the great twist. That Johnny becomes a mentor to a group of kids who are being bullied. Suddenly, the former bully takes on the mentor role of kids he would never have hung out with at their age.
Boom. We’re off to the races. Cobra Kai expertly lays the breadcrumbs for us, the audience, to get drawn in. We get to know the kids and their plight. We want them to succeed and we want to see Johnny grow as a person. All the while, you have the specter of Daniel, who grows concerned over the return of Cobra Kai and starts his own dojo in response. And that’s all without digging into the countless conflicts among all the supporting characters.
Cobra Kai set up its one master conflict, but didn’t neglect to fill it out with countless subplots among the students and among the teachers. And they alternate the focus as the series goes on, all without losing sight of the major conflict at its core. Each episode is like a potato chip. They’re easy to eat and digest, but as soon as you’re done eating one, you just have to go to the next. And each episode features a great segue into the conflict along with some excellent character motivations to help drive the narrative forward, even if the dialogue doesn’t quite sell it.
Before you know it, you’ve binged an entire season and have become invested in what is little more than a cheesy soap opera. And you know what? It’s f**king awesome.
The Admirable Cobra Kai
Again, I say none of this to disrespect Cobra Kai. There is clearly a lot of love that goes into this show. It wouldn’t be a success if everyone involved wasn’t giving it 110%. That being said, it’s hard not to be inspired by it on some level. In the era of big franchises, explosions, and polished filmmaking, it’s easy to feel like you’re not good enough. Cobra Kai proves that story rises above specific storytelling and filmmaking techniques.
Cobra Kai proves that the filmmaking, acting, dialogue, and fight choreography don’t have to be off-the-wall good for a show to be beloved. They can merely be good enough to get the job done, so long as the core underpinnings of the story are strong.
For many of us without extravagant resources to make our own stories, it really does put into perspective what is truly important — character motivations and story structure. And it is those two things that lie at the core of the mystery of Cobra Kai and its success.
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Joseph Jammer Medina is an author, podcaster, and contributor at LRM Online. A graduate of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Television, Jammer's always had a craving for stories. From movies, television, and web content to books, anime, and manga, he's always been something of a story junkie.